1. Gadamer's Influence
1. After Historicism,
Is Metaphysics Still Possible?
On Hans-Georg Gadamer's looth Birthday
JURGEN HABERMAS, translated by Paul Malone
Understanding and Event [Verstehen und Geschehen] was to be the title of Truth and Method after the publisher expressed his dissatisfaction with the dry suggestion Principles of a Philosophical Hermeneutics and the pioneering title Truth and Method had not yet been hit upon. Over the decades, this book has stimulated philosophical discussion in Germany as no other. Its career is not so much owing to its manifestly hostile stance toward the human sciences, which misunderstand their “understanding” as method; rather, its success can be explained by the relevance of one basic question that Gadamer's her-meneutics seeks to answer. The original title, Understanding and Event, well expresses this thought: the interpreter's understanding “belongs to” an event produced by the text itself, which is in need of interpretation.
Philosophical hermeneutics seeks to lead the way out of a dilemma that the young Gadamer saw himself faced with when he took up his studies in Bres-lau and continued them in Marburg. The rise of the historical human sciences in the nineteenth century had shattered philosophy's confidence in an overarching reason through the course of history. “Time,” as it was soon afterward thematized in Heidegger's Being and Time, and which inexorably transformed all theories into historical constructs, had affected the core of reason.
The historicizing intellectual movement could no longer be tamed by conventional conceptual means. The return to a transcendental critique of science in the style of neo-Kantianism failed, as did the epistemological realist break from the transcendental prison in the style of a Nicolai Hart-mann, whose stratified ontology Gadamer became acquainted with firsthand.
This question became charged with existential significance, taking on a completely new dimension when Gadamer attended the lectures of the Privatdozent Heidegger in the summer semester of 1923 in Freiburg. The answer that the mature Gadamer would ultimately find, of course, distances him further from Heidegger than he himself would care to acknowledge.
From the observer's standpoint, Gadamer concedes that historicism is correct. He is convinced that “the legacy of the classical-Christian tradition, common to us all, no longer bears our weight.” In the philosophically relevant sense of metaphysical interpretations of reason, too, this tradition is no longer “weight-bearing.” The fact that the binding force of our vital orientations has been dependent on the persuasiveness of such a tradition steers Gadamer's thought along the hermeneutic perspective. How does the living acquisition of authoritative traditions appear from the perspective of the participants themselves? We too, the historically disillusioned contemporaries, are indeed participants. We become entangled in formative processes so long as we grow up with identity-forming traditions.
Our historically enlightened culture, of course, poses itself the question whether, in the reflexively fractured attitude of the now widespread historical consciousness, we can find our way back to a means of taking up traditions that leaves the binding force of persuasive traditions undamaged. Philosophical hermeneutics seeks an answer by means of a critique of the false methodological self-conception of the human sciences. It is to be a liberal-conservative answer, not the conservative-revolutionary answer of Heidegger.
Heidegger directs his eschatological glance forward. After 1945 his expectant gaze, converted to apocalyptic ideas, is fixed on the withdrawal symptoms of a destitute present that seem to herald the approach of something wholly other, of the absent God. Gadamer looks in the opposite direction. He casts his rescuing eye back toward the endangered substance to be hermeneutically won from a bountiful tradition. After Hegel and after historicism, he discovers the source of the authority of a historically affected fluid reason in the civilizing power of tradition.
THE CONTINUITY OF A LONG LIFE
A tradition can be convincing only, of course, if it remains current due to the influence of “classic” works. On the basis of works that themselves make repeated claims to topicality, new criteria are continually formed. It is the
Gadamer enjoys the rare privilege of a long life, spanning the century. He can thus check his hermeneutic insights against a contemporary context that now reaches into the fourth generation. The organic soundness of a constitution that was by no means robust from birth may have confirmed him in his experience of the continuity of a “weight-bearing” event. (As an adult, Gadamer was stricken with infantile paralysis.) No less endangered than the health of the body, indeed, is the continuity of the selfhood that we ascribe to ourselves. Gadamer seems, through all the historic crises of the century, to have remained himself. Kant lived to be eighty, Schelling almost eighty. Those too, taking into account the change in life expectancy, were long life spans. The sheer length, however, of Gadamer's experienced period of ruptures and accelerations through this entire catastrophe-ridden century—this is indeed unprecedented.
The thorough biography of Gadamer by Jean Grondin is essentially free of hagiographic tendencies. All the more convincingly, it draws the portrait of an intellect at first hesitant and uncertain, unpolitical and adaptable, but always liberal and self-critical; provided with shrewdness, sensitivity, and a sure eye by his good middle-class background; classically educated and independent of judgment. Gadamer holds with great energy to his early acquired basic philosophical themes and insights.
The student assimilated the end of the First World War with Spengler and Theodor Lessing, in the style of the then widespread middle-class intellectual quietism and cultural pessimism. The lecturer in Marburg experienced the end of the Weimar Republic with concern, but from a distance; and he maneuvered himself with caution, diplomatic skill, and a little luck through the 1930-5, without breaking off amicable contacts with Lowith and other emigrants. The professor in Leipzig avoided the political involvement in which many of his contemporaries, out of opportunism or conviction, became entangled during the Nazi period.
The rector, appointed by the authorities of the Soviet occupation, made an astonishingly aggressive speech, marked by the consciousness that the corrupted German university was not in need of “self-assertion” but rather of renewal. To the trinity of a certain other rectoral address, to Heidegger's 1933 expressed recommendation of “labor service, military service, and service to knowledge,” Gadamer replies by invoking the hermeneutic virtues of objectivity, honesty with oneself, and tolerance of others.
THE LATE COMING TO INFLUENCE
The successor to Jaspers's chair gained public stature in West Germany—and an outstanding influence in his discipline. Gadamer, together with Hel-muth Kuhn, made the Philosophische Rundschau the leading journal in the field. And Heidelberg would not have become the philosophical center of West Germany for two or three decades had he not brought Lowith back from emigration and, with such colleagues as Henrich, Spaemann, The-unissen, and Tugendhat, gathered round himself the best of the succeeding generation as well. At the end of his active, extremely successful teaching career, the now-famous philosophical teacher reacted to the student protests certainly not with sympathy, but without widespread hostility. Open as ever, he became involved with Karl-Otto Apel and others in debates on hermeneutics and ideological critique. He faced up, in his way, to the Zeitgeist that had been set in motion.
A remarkable aspect of Gadamer's fitful intellectual life journey is his late coming to influence. Not until the 1950-5 did he force himself—or allow himself to be moved by the words of his clear-sighted wife—to work his course lectures on the “Introduction to the Human Sciences” and on “Art and History,” polished over the decades, into a book. It was completed in his sixtieth year. His peers of the 1950-5 and 1960-5—Popper, Adorno, and Gehlen—although they were two, three, and four years younger than Gadamer, published the works with which they established their philosophical positions considerably earlier: already in 1934 Logic of Scientific Discovery had appeared, in 1940 Man, His Nature and Position in the World, and in 1944 the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Nonetheless, Truth and Method casts a long shadow.
The stars were auspicious. In the human sciences a hermeneutic trend began to develop. Above all, Gadamer's “ontological shift of hermeneutics guided by language” offered a movable viewpoint from which others could perceive the convergence of the later philosophies of Heidegger and Wittgenstein. As Karl-Otto Apel long ago demonstrated, the semantics of world disclosure and the pragmatics of language games meet on the field of a dialogic hermeneutics.
The American philosopher Richard F. Bernstein has even placed Gadamer at the point of convergence of neopragmatism, Critical Theory, and deconstructionism. The mediating temperament of an author intent on connection and not on segregation, who prefers accepting ambiguities to singling out alternatives, corresponds to the broad international effective history of Truth and Method.
This weekend, when guests from all over the world rush to the celebratory lectures of Richard Rorty and Michael Theunissen in Heidelberg, when almost the entirety of German philosophy gathers there around the master, the reasons for this are not exclusively to be found in their respect for his
Gadamer occupies an intermediary position in the philosophy of the Federal Republic of Germany. With his gesture of reverence for his teacher Heidegger, on the one hand, he keeps alive something of the spirit of the German mandarins. On the other hand, he passes on the claim of metaphysical thought and an elitist self-conception of philosophy, rather than plausible quotations. Gadamer did, indeed, still travel through the Latin countries of Europe like a phenomenological governor; in Germany, however, he refused to play the role of the last mandarin. The trace of academic arrogance, rather, refers to the achievement of the classical philologist who “only reads books more than two thousand years old.”
Gadamer was never tempted to claim for himself a privileged access to truth. He put aside the pretension of the initiated herald and seer, and with his austere bearing fit in with the postwar generation on its path to desub-limate the embarrassing German-Greek pathos.
The admonition to hermeneutic “modesty” warns of the high-handedness of a subjectivity that blinds itself to the context-dependency of its utterances. A congenial sort of modesty, however, also characterizes the personality and the self-conception of a philosopher who initially felt himself so rejected by Heidegger that he first decided to take his finals as a teacher of Greek. This early insecurity may have kept Gadamer from following his master along treacherous paths. His difference from Heidegger, of course, is not merely a question of style.
THE RELATIONSHIP TO HEIDEGGER
Of Heidegger's three prominent Marburg pupils, Gadamer is the most devoted. Although Karl Lowith and Gerhard Kriiger distanced themselves quite early from the positions of their common teacher, Gadamer avoided any public word of criticism. After the war, it was he who made a determined effort to rehabilitate Heidegger. Gadamer overcame a great deal of opposition to produce a festschrift for Heidegger's sixtieth birthday in 1949. He pushed through Heidegger's acceptance as a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Science. He demanded that Heidegger receive the newly instituted Hegel Prize of the city of Stuttgart. At the ceremony commemorating his late teacher, Gadamer spoke of “Heidegger's lifelong search for God.”
His biographer declares that Heidegger's Ways is the book “that Gadamer never stopped writing.” Rightly, however, Jean Grondin immediately adds: “While Heidegger, faced with the acute oblivion of being in the technological age, no longer expected anything but a radical new beginning of the history
For the religiously unmusical Gadamer, it is not a dressed-up search for God that serves as an organum of philosophy, but rather art. While the concept of the history of being lives off religious intuitions that Heidegger, under Nietzsche's influence, recoined in the 1930-5 into a new paganism, the idea of effective history is developed on the basis of aesthetic experiences. Gadamer holds to the profane model of art. The temporalized Sein that always remains “itself” does not make itself perceptible as the occurrence of an overpowering force of destiny, but rather occurs as the fundamental “Sein of the work of art,” which in ever-new readings “makes itself valid as truth.”
Art seems to solve the riddle of the “temporal core of truth” (Adorno). A work that proves itself as “classic” through the ages and remains constant in its effect remains binding, no matter how the interpretations and the criteria of evaluation change in the course of time.
To be sure, Gadamer purchases the assimilation of philosophical statements to the “poetic word” at a high price. He thereby assimilates the validity of truth to the authenticity of literature and the plastic arts. Gadamer sees very well that in aestheticizing philosophy, what is at stake is nothing less than truth: “What does ‘truth’ mean, when a linguistic construct has cut off all reference to an authoritative reality and comes true in itself?” But he does not shrink from the consequence that has brought many critics into the arena.
In his view, philosophical statements, in a non-metaphorical sense, can as little be “true” or “false” as poetic utterances. Philosophical texts and theories are understood by Gadamer as self-referential constructs that “miss” not the facts, but rather “themselves” alone; that is, they can become powerless or “fall into empty sophistry.” Thus an image of “genuine” philosophizing arises, according to which the rhetorical power of linguistic disclosure of the world has always already outstripped the revisionist power of the better argument.
Must the truth not be given the latitude to make an appeal, if we are to be able to learn something in our dealings with it? When the serpent of philosophy narcissistically rolls itself up for an eternal heart-to-heart dialogue with itself, the world's instructive refutation dies away unheard. However, we critics of Gadamer can remain at ease. The best refutation of his own view is provided us by the paradigm-shifting argumentative strategies of the guest of honor himself—who has remained young and eager for discussion.
This essay first appeared in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Feb. 12, 2000. It is reprinted here with the permission of Dr. Uwe Justus Wenzel.
2. Being That Can Be Understood Is Language
In a book called Reason in the Age of Science, Hans-Georg Gadamer asked the question: Can “philosophy” refer to anything nowadays except the theory of science? His own answer to this question is affirmative. It may seem that the so-called “analytic” tradition in philosophy—the tradition that goes back to Frege and Russell and whose most prominent living representatives are Quine, Davidson, Dummett, and Putnam—must return a negative answer. For that tradition is often thought of as a sort of public relations agency for the natural sciences.
Those who think of analytic philosophy in this way often describe Gada-mer's own work as a sort of apologia for the humanities. In this view of the matter, each of what C. P. Snow called “the two cultures” has its own philosophical claque. Those who accept Snow's picture of the intellectual scene think of the quarrel over science versus religion that divided the intellectuals of the nineteenth century as having evolved into the contemporary quarrel between the kinds of people whom we Californians call the “tech-ies” and the “fuzzies.”
This crude and oversimplified picture of the tension within contemporary philosophy is not altogether wrong. But a more detailed account of the history of philosophy in the twentieth century would distinguish between a first, scientistic phase of analytic philosophy and a second, anti-scientistic phase. Between 1900 and 1960 most admirers of Frege would have agreed with Quine's dictum that “philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” But a change came over analytic philosophy around the time that philosophers began reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations side by side with Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Since then, more and more analytic philosophers have come to agree with Putnam that part of the problem with present-day philosophy is a scientism inherited from the nineteenth century.
Putnam urges us to give up the idea that natural science has a distinctive “method,” one that makes physics a better paradigm of rationality than, for example, historiography or jurisprudence. He is joined in this appeal by philosophers of physics like Arthur Fine, who asks us to abandon the assumption that natural science “is special, and that scientific thinking is unlike any other.” Putnam and Fine both ridicule the idea that the discourse of physics is somehow more in touch with reality than any other portion of culture. Post-Wittgensteinian Anglophone philosophy of language, of the sort found in Putnam, Davidson, and Brandom, has collaborated with post-Kuhnian philosophy of science, of the sort found in Latour, Hacking, and Fine. The result of this collaboration has been a blurring of the lines between the sciences and the humanities, and an attempt to make Snow's techie-fuzzie controversy seem as quaint as the nineteenth-century debate over the age of the earth.
This is not to say that scientism is dead. There are many distinguished analytic philosophers, particularly admirers of Kripke like David Lewis and Frank Jackson, who are unabashed physicalist metaphysicians. They think of themselves as continuing the struggle against mystificatory nonsense that Thomas Huxley waged against Bishop Wilberforce, Russell against Bergson, and Carnap against Heidegger. These philosophers still award a special on-tological status (“fundamental reality”) to the elementary particles discovered by the physicists. They believe that natural science gives us essences and necessities. They think that Wittgensteinian philosophers of language are dangerously irrationalist in saying that all distinctions between essences and accidents, or between necessities and contingencies, are artifacts that change as our choice of description changes. They think that Kuhnian philosophers of science are equally misguided in refusing to grant natural science any metaphysical or epistemological privileges.
This quarrel over whether natural science is special presently dominates analytic philosophy. I want to suggest that a much-quoted sentence from Gadamer might serve as a slogan for those philosophers of language and science who follow Putnam and Fine rather than Kripke and Lewis. The sentence is: “Being that can be understood is language” (“Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist Sprache”). That claim encapsulates, I shall argue, both what was true in nominalism and what was true in idealism.
Let me define “nominalism” as the claim that all essences are nominal and all necessities de dicto. This amounts to saying that no description of an object is more true to the nature of that object than any other. Nominalists think that Plato's metaphor of cutting nature at the joints should be abandoned once and for all. Proponents of nominalism are often described as “linguistic idealists” by the materialist metaphysicians. For the latter believe that Dalton and Mendeleev did indeed cut nature at the joints. From this Kripkean perspective, Wittgensteinians are so infatuated with words that
Nominalism, however, is a protest against any sort of metaphysics. To be sure, it was misleadingly associated with materialism by Hobbes and other early modern philosophers, and is still so associated by Quine. But these thinkers are inconsistent in holding that words denoting the smallest bits of matter cut nature at the joints in a way that other words did not. A consistent nominalist will insist that the predictive and explanatory success of a corpuscularian vocabulary has no bearing on its ontological status, and that the very idea of “ontological status” should be dropped.
This means that a consistent nominalist cannot countenance a hierarchical organization of the kingdom of the thinking mind that corresponds, as Plato's organizational charts did, to an ontological hierarchy. So struggles for priority between metaphysics and physics, or between techies and fuz-zies, look ludicrous from a nominalist perspective. So does Heidegger's distinction between metaphysics and Thinking, as well as his claim that “in the end, philosophy's business is to safeguard the power of the most elementary words.” For a nominalist, Heidegger's favorite words such as phusis (Greek for “nature”) or Wesen (German for “essence”) are no more “elementary” or “primordial” than words such as “aubergine” and “baseball.” The more resonant words have no philosophical privilege over the rawest neologisms any more than the elementary particles over the latest human artifacts.
To defend my suggestion that nominalism can best be summarized in Gadamer's doctrine that only language can be understood, I shall take up the obvious objection to that claim. Techies are quick to expostulate that the paradigm of achieving greater understanding is modern science's increasing grasp of the nature of the physical universe—a universe that is not language. The nominalist riposte to this objection is: we never understand anything except under a description, and there are no privileged descriptions. There is no way of getting behind our descriptive language to the object as it is in itself—not because our faculties are limited but because the distinction between “for us” and “in itself” is a relic of a descriptive vocabulary, that of metaphysics, which has outlived its usefulness. We should interpret the term “understanding an object” as a slightly misleading way of describing our ability to connect old descriptions with new. It is misleading because it suggests, as does the correspondence theory of truth, that words can be checked against nonwords in order to find out which words are adequate to the world.
In a nominalist account, the progress made by modern science consists
The central thesis of idealism is that truth is determined by coherence among beliefs rather than correspondence to the intrinsic nature of the object. This doctrine suggests, though it does not entail, the central thesis of nominalism: that we should replace the notion of “intrinsic nature” with that of “identifying description.” For the notions of real essence and of truth-as-correspondence stand or fall together. Gadamer's slogan gives us a way of sweeping both aside. For it is not an announcement of a metaphysical discovery about the intrinsic nature of being. It is a suggestion about how to redescribe the process we call “increasing our understanding.”
From the Greeks to the present, this process has usually been described with the help of phallogocentric metaphors of depth. The deeper and more penetrating our understanding of something, so the story goes, the further we are from appearance and the closer to reality. The effect of adopting Gadamer's slogan is to replace these metaphors of depth with metaphors of breadth: the more integration between these descriptions, the better is our understanding of the object identified by any of those descriptions.
In the natural sciences, the obvious example of such better understanding is the integration of a macroscopic with a microscopic vocabulary. But the difference between these two sets of descriptions is of no more onto-logical or epistemological significance than the difference between a description of the Mass in the terms of orthodox Catholic theology and a description in the terms of comparative anthropology. In neither case is there greater depth, nor a closer approach to reality. But in both there is increased understanding. We understand matter better after Hobbes's corpuscles are supplemented by Dalton's atoms, and then by Bohr's. We understand the Mass better after Fraser, and better still after Freud. But if we follow out the implications of Gadamer's slogan, we shall resist the temptation
The latter distinction has legitimate, unphilosophical uses in describing perceptual illusions, financial chicanery, government propaganda, misleading advertising, and so on. But intellectual progress is only occasionally and incidentally a matter of detecting illusions or lies. The appearance-reality distinction is no more appropriate for describing the advances made between Priestley and Bohr than the advances made in our understanding of the Iliad. We pride ourselves on our ability to fuse Homer's own descriptions of his poems with those used by Plato, by Virgil, by Pope, by nineteenth-century philologists, and by twentieth-century feminist scholars. But we do not, and should not, say that we have penetrated the veil of appearances that originally separated us from the poem's intrinsic nature. The poem has no such nature any more than matter does.
The fuzzie-techie debate, like the religion-science debate of the nineteenth century, is a quarrel about which area of culture gets us closer to the way things “really” are. But as the twentieth century wore on, proposals for the peaceful coexistence of religion and science proliferated. Debate about the respective merits of the two has come to seem jejune. With luck, the quarrel between the techies and the fuzzies will, in the course of the next century or two, gradually dissipate in the same way. For the attempt to find a philosophically interesting difference between techies and fuzzies was a symptom of the attempt to preserve a certain picture of the relation between language and nonhuman entities. This is the picture that Wittgen-steinian nominalists and Kuhnian philosophers of science are helping us to give up. If they succeed, we shall no longer find it paradoxical to assert that being that can be understood is language. This slogan will be taken as a commonsensical account of what understanding is, rather than as a contrived attempt to improve the image of the humanities.
Gadamer has often been accused of inventing a linguistic variety of idealism. But, as I suggested earlier, we should instead think of him as keeping the gold in idealism and throwing out the metaphysical dross. Idealism only acquired a bad name because it was slow to abandon the appearance-reality distinction. Once this distinction is set aside, idealism and nominalism become two names for the same philosophical position. The ill effects of that distinction can be seen in Berkeley. Having said that “nothing can be like an idea except an idea,” Berkeley went on to infer that only ideas and minds are real. What he should have said was that only a sentence can be relevant to the truth of another sentence, a nominalist claim that is devoid of metaphysical implications.
Berkeley's metaphysics is a typical result of the idea that thoughts or sentences
Our ability to shrug off this question increased when we took what Gus-tav Bergman called “the linguistic turn”—a turn taken more or less simultaneously by Frege and by Peirce. For that turn eventually made it possible for logical positivists like Ayer to de-metaphysicize a coherence theory of truth. They urged us to stop talking about how to cross the abyss that separates subject from object and to talk instead about how assertions are justified. The positivists saw that once we substitute language for “experience” or “ideas” or “consciousness,” we can no longer reconstruct Locke's claim that ideas of primary qualities have some sort of closer relation to reality than ideas of secondary qualities. But it was precisely this claim that the Kripkean revolt against Wittgenstein resurrected. In doing so, the Kripkeans were proclaiming that the linguistic turn had been a bad, idealistic idea.
The current quarrel between the Kripkeans and their fellow analytic philosophers is one way of continuing the old debate about what, if anything, was true in idealism. But a more fruitful way to approach this quarrel may be to take up a suggestion of Heidegger's. Heidegger viewed the series of great metaphysicians from Plato to Nietzsche as control freaks: people who thought that thinking would let us achieve mastery. In a Heideggerian account, the metaphysicians' phallogocentric metaphors of depth and penetration are expressions of the will to take possession of the inner citadel of the universe. The idea of becoming identical with the object of knowledge, like that of representing it as it really is in itself, expresses the desire to acquire the object's power.
The scientism of the nineteenth century mocked both religion and idealist philosophy, because natural science offered a kind of control that its rivals could not. This movement saw religion as a failed attempt to achieve control. It saw Absolute Idealism as an escapist, self-deceptive attempt to deny the need for control. The ability of natural science to predict phenomena, and to provide technology for producing desired phenomena, showed
The strong point of this scientistic line of thought is that although understanding is always of objects under a description, the causal powers of objects to hurt or help us are unaffected by the way they are described. We shall get sick and die, no matter how we describe disease and death. The Christian Scientists are, alas, wrong. The weak point of scientism is the inference from the fact that a certain descriptive vocabulary enables us to predict and utilize the causal powers of objects to the claim that this vocabulary offers a better understanding of those objects than any other. That non se-quitur is still put forward by the Kripkeans. Whether or not one sees it as a non sequitur depends on whether one is willing to redescribe understanding in the way that Gadamer has suggested.
To follow up on Gadamer's redescription, we should have to give up the idea of a natural terminus to the process of understanding either matter, or the Mass, or the Iliad, or anything else—a level at which we have dug down so deep that our spade is turned. For there is no limit to the human imagination—to our ability to redescribe an object, and thereby recontextualize it. A descriptive vocabulary is a way of relating an object to other objects—putting it in a new context. There is no limit to the number of relations language can capture, nor of contexts that descriptive vocabularies can create. Whereas the metaphysician will ask whether the relations expressed in a new vocabulary are really there, the Gadamerian will ask only whether they can be woven together with the relations captured by previous vocabularies in a helpful way.
As soon as one uses a term like “helpful,” however, those who believe in real essences and in truth as correspondence will ask “helpful by what criterion?” To think that such a demand for criteria is always reasonable is to imagine that the language of the future should be a tool in the hands of the language of the present. It is to become a control freak—someone who thinks that we can short-circuit history by finding something that lies behind it. It is to believe that we can now, in the present, construct a filing system that will have an appropriate pigeonhole for anything that might possibly turn up in the future. Those who still hope for such a filing system will typically select some single area of culture—philosophy, science, religion, art—and assign it “the first rank in the kingdom of the thinking mind.” But those who follow Gadamer, like those who follow Habermas, will drop this project of ranking. They will substitute the idea of what Habermas calls a “domination-free” (herrschaftsfrei) conversation that can never come to an end, and in which the barriers between academic disciplines are as permeable as those between historical epochs.
Such people hope for a culture in which struggles for power between bishops and biologists, or poets and philosophers, or fuzzies and techies, are
A culture of this sort will seem to materialist metaphysicians like one in which the fuzzies have won—a culture in which poetry and imagination have finally gained the victory over philosophy and reason. So my little sermon on a Gadamerian text will probably look to them like one more public relations exercise on behalf of the humanities. I shall end by saying why I think that this is not the right way to look at the matter.
In the first place, a Gadamerian culture would have no use for faculties called “reason” or “imagination”—faculties that are conceived as having some special relation to truth or reality. When I speak of “capturing the imagination,” I mean nothing more than “being picked up and used.” In the second place, a Gadamerian culture would recognize that everybody's filing system will need to have pigeonholes into which to fit everybody else's filing system. Every area of culture would be expected to have its own parochial description of every other area of culture, but nobody will ask which of these descriptions gets that area right. The important thing is that it will be herrschaftsfrei; there will be no one, overarching filing system into which everybody is expected to fit.
My sermon on the text “Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist Sprache” obviously has not been offered as an account of the real essence of Gadamer's thought. Rather, it is offered as a suggestion about how a few more horizons might be fused. I have tried to suggest how Gadamer's own description of the movement of recent philosophical thought can be integrated with some alternative descriptions currently coming into use among analytic philosophers.
I suspect and hope, however, that once another century has passed, the distinction I have just employed—the distinction between analytic and non-analytic philosophy—will strike intellectual historians as unimportant. Philosophers in the year 2100, I suspect, will read Gadamer and Putnam, Kuhn and Heidegger, Davidson and Derrida, Habermas and Vattimo, Theunissen and Brandom, side by side. If they do, it will be because they have at last abandoned the scientistic problem-solving model of philosophical activity with which Kant burdened our discipline. They will have substituted a conversational model, one in which philosophical success is measured by horizons fused rather than problems solved, or even by problems dissolved. In this philosophical Utopia, the historian of philosophy will not choose her
Gadamer once described the process of Horizontverschmelzung as what happens when “the interpreter's own horizon is decisive, not as the standpoint of which he is convinced or which he insists on, but rather as a possible opinion he puts into play and at risk.” He went on to describe this process as “the consummatory moment of conversation [Volhugsform des Gesprachs] in which something is expressed [erne Sache zum Ausdruck kommt] that is neither my property nor that of the author of the text I am interpreting, but is shared” (TM388). To replace the appearance-reality distinction with the distinction between a limited and a more extensive range of descriptions would be to abandon the idea of the text or thing we are discussing (the Sache) as something separated from us by an abyss. It would be replaced by a Gadamerian conception of the Sache as something forever up for grabs, forever to be reimagined and redescribed in the course of an endless conversation. This replacement would mean the end of the quest for power, and for finality, that Heidegger called “the history of metaphysics.”
That tradition was dominated by the thought that there is something nonhuman that human beings should try to live up to, a thought that today finds its most plausible expression in the scientistic conception of culture. In a future Gadamerian culture, human beings would wish only to live up to one another, in the sense in which Galileo lived up to Aristotle, Blake to Milton, Dalton to Lucretius, and Nietzsche to Socrates. The relationship between predecessor and successor would be conceived, as Gianni Vattimo has emphasized, not as the power-laden relation of overcoming (Uberwindung), but as the gentler relation of turning to new purposes (Verwindung). In such a culture, Gadamer would be seen as one of the figures who helped give a new, more literal sense to Holderlin's line, “Ever since we are a conversation …” (Seit wir ein Gesprach sind …).
This essay first appeared in the London Review of Books 22, no. 6, Mar. 16, 2000, and is reprinted here with permission. It was given as an address at the University of Heidelberg on the occasion of Gadamer's hundredth birthday.
1. “Philosophy or Theory of Science?” in Reason in the Age of Science (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), 151. [BACK]
2. Fine, “The Viewpoint of No-one in Particular,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 72 (Nov. 1998), 19. [BACK]
3. On the Coherence of
Hermeneutics and Ethics
An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas
GERALD L. BRUNS
Does not philosophy consist in treating mad ideas with wisdom?
My purpose in what follows is to take up the relation of hermeneutics and ethics as it emerges in a post-Heideggerian philosophical context. In terms of proper names this means giving an account of the conceptual symmetries and differences between Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Emmanuel Levinas's ethical theory, which is sometimes called an ethics of al-terity or of responsibility, in order to contrast it with subject-centered theories that emphasize thinking and acting in accord with rules, principles, duties, codes, beliefs, teachings, communities, theories of the right and the good, and so on, where to be in accord with such things, however we figure them, is what justifies us, or anyhow puts us above reproach. Levinasian ethics is concerned with the claims other people have on us in advance of how right we are with respect to rules and beliefs or how in tune we are with a just and rational order of things. For Levinas, ethics is not possible from a starting point of self-interest.
Being under claims of history and tradition rather than claims of concepts and rules is central to Gadamer's thinking, which is critical of sub-jectivist accounts of human understanding in ways that coincide with Levinas's project. As Gadamer puts it, understanding is so permeated by “the historicity of existence” that it is “not suitably conceived as a consciousness of something” (GW3: 18/PH125). Better to say: understanding something comes from dwelling with it. Likewise Levinas: “Humanity … must not be first understood as consciousness” (AE132/0X683). Consciousness is always separate from its objects, impervious and indifferent to them (which is all that objectivity means). “What affects a consciousness,” Levinas says,
Foundational for both Gadamer and Levinas is Heidegger's “herme-neutics of facticity,” with its characterization of our relation to the world (and to others in it) in terms of habitation rather than intuition or representation. In Being and Time Heidegger regards our practical involvement with the things of everyday life as ontologically prior to the theoretical attitude that determines the formation of concepts and propositions (SZi49/BTi8g). How the world touches us matters as much as how we grasp it conceptually. Heidegger's idea is that the theoretical attitude, whatever its philosophical importance with respect to how knowledge is possible, is oblivious to the world we inhabit. Theory is indifferent to what is singular and irreplaceable. Whereas by contrast our being-in-the-world is a relation of concern or care (Sorge) rather than one of disinterested regard (SZigi-96/6X235-41). It is an (arguably ethical) relation of being-with and at-tunement rather than a logical relation highlighted by the prepositional attitude. “The world of Dasein,” Heidegger says, “is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others” (SZi 18/6X155). However we describe it, our relation to the world and to others is closer and more intimate than is suggested by any philosophical culture whose ideal is the self-certainty of an objectifying consciousness (SZi58/BTaoo-2Oi).
This proximity of the world and of others in it is a matter of central importance to both Gadamer and Levinas—but each thinks through this issue much differently from the way Heidegger introduced it. Levinas, for example, sharply criticizes Heidegger for repressing the ethical dimension of our being-in-the-world in favor of ontology, where ontology means a concern with the unity of being or totality of all that is. If Heidegger situates us in the world as inhabitants rather than disengaged punctual observers, he is nevertheless still asking the disengaged subject's question: What is our relation to the being (that is, the totality) of things? If the answer is “care,” Heidegger's interest is nevertheless in the ontological rather than ethical meaning of care, and Dasein's care is always ultimately for itself, not for others (SZ317-23/6X364-70: “Care and Selfhood”). In his analysis of dwelling and habitation in Totality and Infinity Levinas points out that “In Being and Time the home does not appear apart from a system of implements,” and there is no one in the house but me (TeIi84/TIi7o). I dwell among implements designed to domesticate the world for me, and it is one from which others have to be excluded if I am to come into my own, working out my ownmost possibilities or my destiny. To be sure, as Heidegger says, “As being-with, Dasein ‘is’ essentially for the sake of Others” (SZi23/BTi6o), but it is just this condition of being-for-others that must be overcome if the
Levinas reverses completely this interpretation of being-for-the-sake-of-others in order to replace fundamental ontology with a fundamental ethics, where the relation of one-for-the-other is no longer an ontological defect. For Levinas, it is not that I am a self aiming for freedom and authenticity but tragically find myself blocked and absorbed by a faceless otherness. On the contrary, it is the face of the other that singles me out and makes me what I am (defines what it is to be human). For Levinas, being human starts out from a position of responsibility to and for others rather than from one of consciousness and self-reflexive freedom. Being-for-others is the adventure—“the fine risk to be run” (AEigi/OTBiao)—that gives human existence its meaning and transcendence (or, more exactly, as we shall see, its meaning as transcendence).
Meanwhile Gadamer's hermeneutics starts out from section 32 of Being and Time, with its idea that interpretation is never a presuppositionless grasping of something given but always proceeds according to a forestruc-ture of prejudices (SZ150/BT191-92). The question for Gadamer is what happens to these prejudices in our encounter with whatever calls for understanding. Gadamer follows Heidegger's insistence on historicity: our understanding of texts (or of tradition, or of other people) is always local and contingent; it is always an event circumscribed and conditioned by the historical and cultural situation in which it occurs. In a word, understanding is always finite. However, this finitude entails the fact that what we try to understand is irreducible to the concepts and categories that our situation makes available to us. Tradition, for example, is always in excess of our capacity to appropriate it. So we can never understand the other purely and simply in terms of ourselves or by remaining fixed in what seem to us self-evident determinations of how things are (WM265-6g/TM28i-85). The example of the classical text shows that understanding the other always entails a critical demand for a change (in us), whether in terms of a revision of prior understanding (prejudices) or, more radically, in terms of a conversion of our habitual modes of thought and feeling to other ways of being that are opened up to us in our encounter with others (WM273-75/ TM28g-go). This means (whatever else it means) that our relation to the other is not simply one of cognition, nor is it even simply a relation of
The symmetry between Gadamerian hermeneutics and Levinasian ethics begins with the recognition of human finitude clarified in the accusative case rather than in terms of whatever might limit the nominative, declarative, or imperative sovereignty of a consciousness presiding over a domain of objects. Levinas expresses this by remarking how philosophical modernity is structured on the model of Homer's Odyssey (DEHHigi/TTO348). That is, its hero is a consciousness capable of self-reflection, a movement of departure and return that defines subjectivity as knowledge and action against opposing forces. I go out into the world in order to take it in, and if I suffer, it is in a struggle for self-possession and possession of the world as if it were my household. Likewise my every action presupposes a redemptive economy of commensurate rewards and punishments. Even gift giving is structured on the model of eventual return. Against Odysseus, however, Levinas places the figure of Abraham, who is called out of his homeland by an absolute other for the sake of a time and a world to come that he will never experience; and there is no turning back (HAH46/CPP93). It is this “departure without return” and without reward that defines the ethical subject (DEHHigi/TTO349). On the model of Abraham, the “I” is for-the-other: a pure gift outside every possibility of exchange or compensation. As Levinas puts it, “the/or of the-one-for-the-other … is a/or of total gratuity, breaking with interest” (AEi54/OTBg6). Levinasian ethics is an ethics of “radical generosity” (DEHHigi/TTO349).
For example, what happens when I encounter another person? Sartre in his famous account of the look treats this encounter as an event of cognition in which, being seen, I become another's representation, a piece of furniture in another's world of intentional objects. Levinas maps onto this encounter another model—not the Greek or philosophical model of knowing and being known but the Jewish or Biblical model of election, of being summoned out of one's house or place of security and comfort. This is the prophetic experience of being called into the wilderness, of being inspired, exposed to the world, offered as a sacrifice, turned inside out like a cloak and put under a claim that cannot be redeemed. For Levinas, the ethical subject is defined by a responsibility that is prior to any rational deliberation
TOWARD THE STRANGER
It follows that neither hermeneutical understanding nor the ethical relation of myself and another is an action or movement capable of being brought under the description of rules or principles. On the contrary, openness or responsiveness to one's situation and to others in it replaces the figure of an autonomous agent acting upon what is given from a position justified in advance. Unlike Habermas, for example, neither Gadamer nor Levinas conceives the ethical in terms of the justification of norms. Gadamer, for example, thinks of understanding on the model of Aristotle's concept of cpgovrjaic;, or practical wisdom, which is a ground-level or dialectical mode of thinking different both from theoretical consciousness (s7uaTr||j,r|), or knowing what things are, and from technical know-how (TS%VT|), or knowing how things are made or how they work. cpgovrjaic; involves responsiveness to what particular situations call for in the way of action, where knowing how to act cannot be determined in advance by an appeal to rules, principles, or general theories (WM3O4-5/TM321-22). Knowledge here cannot be conceptualized or codified in general terms because it has to do with singular and unprecedented states of affairs, particularly as these involve us with other people (cpgovrjaic;” is in fact the name of “the arete proper to human dealings”) (GWy: 148/1037). At the level of everyday life we are beneath the reach of universals. The classic example is knowing what friendship calls for in our being with others. Knowledge in this event cannot be separated out from experience; it is, so to speak, embedded in situations that we live through and which shape us in very particular ways. It
Indeed, cpgovrjatc;” (and Aristotelian ethics generally) presupposes the condition of familiarity that comes with being with others and learning one's way around in a shared and settled environment, and the same can be said of hermeneutics, where understanding is never a process that starts from scratch but, as in Heidegger's analysis, is a condition of belonging to the world, a mode of being that one enlarges by integrating what is alien into what is at hand. Thus to understand is to contextualize, to arrange and assemble into a unity in which nothing is foreign or out of place. Levinasian ethics, however, takes us onto radically different ground. In his “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity” (1957), Levinas distinguishes between two kinds of truth. On the one hand, there is the truth of identity that characterizes propositions (s is p). Truth here is the truth of representation and cognition. It is what governs the integration of differences into an order of things, as when one makes sense of what is strange by finding a place for it within one's conceptual scheme, a movement that Levinas calls “the reduction of the other to the same” (DEHHi65-66/CPP48). Here everything follows the logic of identity. On the other hand, however, there is the truth of experience that is essentially a reversal of this reduction to identity:
For experience deserves its name only if it transports us beyond what constitutes our nature. Genuine experience must even lead us beyond the nature that surrounds us…. Truth would thus designate the outcome of a movement that leaves a world that is intimate and familiar, even if we have not yet explored it completely, and goes toward the stranger, toward a beyond, as Plato puts it. Truth would imply more than exteriority: transcendence. (DEHHi65/CPP47)
For Levinas, transcendence means departure from “the immanence of the known,” that is, from a world defined by consciousness and its representations. The ethical relation—the encounter with another—is a movement toward the stranger, that is, toward the nonidentical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world. Indeed, it is not too much to say that for Levinas the dispossession of the self is the condition of the ethical as such.
As if the ethical were, philosophically, a world upside-down-as, in crucial ways, it is — Levinasian ethics derives from a historical world in which the Holocaust is not unthinkable but is, in fact, a premise that cannot be evaded, part of an ineradicable background memory that must inform all future reflection on what it is to be human. Indeed, Levinas is deeply critical of a philosophical anthropology that starts out with — in order to justify — an autonomous ego acting in its own interests. Such an idea presupposes a Hobbesian/Hegelian world in which my relationship with others is always a struggle for domination in which I either subsume or eliminate what is not myself. In such a world the Holocaust is horrifying but not surprising. By contrast Levinas proposes a world in which being human means being a gift or offering for others. Since our imaginations and, indeed, our historical experiences are Hobbesian/Hegelian, such an anthropology is more than a little frightening — and Levinas's language makes no attempt to disguise the extremity of his thought, where persecution, for example, is not a metaphor but defines ethical responsibility as existence despite oneself. Not surprisingly, it is in his commentaries on the Talmud that Levinas is most explicit on this point: “To bear responsibility for everything and everyone is to be responsible despite oneself. To be responsible despite oneself is to be persecuted. Only the persecuted must answer for everyone, even for his persecutor” (SS46/NTRi 14-15). As Robert Bernasconi says in glossing this line, Levinasian ethics is not derived from the philosophical tradition. “Levinas's achievement is that he has developed a philosophy that arises from the non-philosophical experience of being persecuted.” It is a philosophy marked by historical realism rather than by the formal realism of a thinking that aims at the logical justification of its concepts and assertions.
Persecution defines a condition of radical passivity in which I am no longer an “I” but a who or a me. The who or the me, Levinas says, is a “term in recurrence,” a oneself (soi) who exists “on the hither side of consciousness and its play, beyond or on the hither side of being which it thematizes, outside of being, and thus in itself in exile” (AE 163 /OTB 103). Levinas characterizes this condition as a hypostasis, that is, a condition of exposure in which I no longer exist as afor-oneself (pour soi) according to the traditional philosophical definition but am entirely for-another — no longer the autonomous agent of Kantian ethics but instead one who exists in the accusative. This is how I am constituted as an ethical subject. “In obsession,” Levinas says, “the accusation effected by [grammatical] categories turns into an absolute accusative in which the ego proper to free consciousness is caught up. It is an accusation without foundation, prior to any movement of the will, an obsessional and persecuting accusation. It strips the ego of its pride
“To give his cheek to the smiter and to be filled with insults” [Lamentations 3:30], to demand suffering in the suffering undergone … is not to draw from suffering some kind of magical redemptive virtue. In the trauma of persecution it is to pass from the outrage undergone to the responsibility for the persecutor, and, in this sense, from suffering to expiation for the other. Persecution is not something added to the subjectivity of the subject and his vulnerability; it is … subjectivity as the other in the same. (AEi yG/OTBi 11)
As Levinas likes to say, the other “slips into me like a thief” (Job 4:12).
Subjectivity structured as “the other in the same” is what Levinas means by “substitution”: “The word I means here I am [me void: literally, see me here], answering for everything and for everyone” (AEi8o-8i/OTBi 14). I am no longer self-identical but am one-for-the-other. It is important to stress, however, that Levinas does not regard this as a condition of alienation. On the contrary, the other is now internal to my identity, “because the other in the same is my substitution for the other through responsibility, for which I am summoned as someone irreplaceable. I exist through the other and for the other, but without this being alienation: I am inspired. This inspiration is the psyche. The psyche can signify this alterity in the same without alienation in the form of incarnation, as being-in-one's-skin, having-the-other-in-one's-skin” (AEi8i/OTBii4). If my relation to the other is a movement outside self-possession toward the stranger, it is nevertheless not a pathological event. For Levinas, the ethical relation of one-for-the-other is what makes being human possible. It is why a humanism that simply emphasizes the autonomy and self-transparency of the ego is, as Levinas says, “not sufficiently human” (AEao3/OTBi 29). For Levinas, as Adriaan Peper-zak says, “the self in the accusative [se, soi-meme] is the core of human significance.”
ETHICS AS HERMENEUTICAL EXPERIENCE
Levinasian ethics is not easily translatable into Gadamer's language, but it is not outside his philosophical horizon. On the contrary, philosophical hermeneutics presupposes something like an ethics of alterity and respon-sibilityjust to the extent that it characterizes the hermeneutical situation on the model of dialogue in which I am not a subject surveying a field but am caught up in a ground-level movement of question and answer that alters me as it unfolds. My openness to this event is the condition of its possibility,
Of course, this looks very much like what Gadamer means when he insists upon openness as a condition that makes not only dialogue but all human relations possible (WM343-44/TM36i-64). The difference is perhaps that Gadamer runs together openness to tradition, openness to the claim of truth in what is said, openness as the “logical structure” of the question, and openness to other persons, whereas a Levinasian would insist on discriminating between openness in these various senses, including the sense of Heidegger's “Gelassenheit” (openness to things, or to the “mystery”), and the more radical openness of hypostasis, “the risky uncovering of oneself … abandoning all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability” (AE8a/OTB48). The point of such discrimination would be to underscore a subtle but fundamental difference between hermeneutical and ethical conceptions of subjectivity. However, it is possible to think through these different conceptions in ways that intertwine them.
For example, a useful distinction can be drawn between being-with (or being-alongside-of) and being face-to-face as alternative modes of relationship with the other. The first is predominantly hermeneutical, as Gadamer clarifies this term; that is, it implies a relationship of mutual understanding, participation, attunement, being on the same track, being in the swing of the game, having words and interests (not to say a world) in common. Ethically it is a relation whose culmination is friendship or at least solidarity. My relation to the other in any case aims at a “we” and implies the possibility of community. The face-to-face relation as Levinas understands it is different
Similarly, Levinas calls the face-to-face encounter “an experience in the strongest sense of the term: a contact with a reality that does not fit into any a priori idea, which overflows all of them…. A face is pure experience, con-ceptless experience” (DEHHi77/CPP5g): it is conceptkss because experience is not a mode of cognition but the opening up of subjectivity, exposing it to alterity. “Consciousness,” Levinas says, “is called into question by a face. … A face confounds the intentionality that aims at it. … The I loses its sovereign self-coincidence, its identification, in which consciousness returns triumphantly to itself to rest on itself. Before the exigency of the other the I is expelled from this rest” (HAH53/CPP97). Experience is “a reversal of subjectivity” (DEHHa25/CPi 16), so that now subjectivity is that of
a man of flesh and blood, more passive in its extradition to the other than the passivity of effects in a causal chain, for it is beyond the unity of apperception of the / think, which is actuality itself. It is a being torn up from oneself for another in the giving to the other of the bread out of one's own mouth. This is not an anodyne formal relation, but all the gravity of the body extirpated from its conatus essendi in the possibility of giving. The identity of the subject is brought out, not by a rest on itself, but by a restlessness that drives me outside of the nucleus of my substantiality. (AE222/OTBi42)
Still, the crucial difference between Gadamer and Levinas is that ultimately Gadamer will want to understand this event as redounding to oneself in the way of self-knowledge. “In the last analysis,” he says, “all understanding is self-understanding” (GWa: 13O/PH55). To be sure, for Gadamer hermeneutical experience is not just an experience of limits or an “experience of one's own historicity” (WM34O/TM357). “Hermeneutical experience is concerned with tradition,” where tradition is not simply an archive or treasure-house of culture; rather, “it is language—it expresses itself like a Thou” (WM34O/TM358). This means that tradition can never be reduced to an object of cognition, no more than a person can (WM34O-41/TM358-59).
In human relations the important thing is … to experience the Thou truly as a Thou—i.e., not to overlook his claim but to let him really say something to us. Here is where openness belongs. But ultimately this openness does not exist only for the person who speaks; rather, anyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond. Belonging together always also means being able to listen to one another. (WM343/TM36i)
But for Gadamer listening-to is always ultimately a listening-for: our relation to the other or to tradition is always a relation to what is said, that is, to a Sache: the claim of the other is a truth claim as well as an ethical claim, and our responsibility takes the form of understanding and acknowledgment rather than the radical form of generosity envisaged by Levinas as substitution or being “one-for-the-other” to the point of being “a hostage” (AEiSG/OTBuy). Moreover, truth here is not simply adequatio in re; it is rather that what is said bears upon me in my situation with the force of law, and my task is to see and understand myself in the light of what is said. My understanding of the other is for me; its goal is, among other things, the enlargement of my horizon. From a Levinasian point of view, hermeneutics is thus faithful to a philosophical tradition that remains recognizably Greek in its fundamental outlook. Departure is balanced by return. Gadamer would not disagree. The first hermeneut was Odysseus, who turned himself into the other—and back again.
Indeed the relation between Gadamer and Levinas is not so much one of disagreement as one of mutually illuminating differences—differences that are paradoxically coherent with one another. This is the more true since Levinas does not oppose Jewish and Greek traditions in any exclusionary way but seeks something very like a fusion of prophetic and Platonic horizons. For example, from a Gadamerian standpoint what is remarkable and instructive about Levinasian ethics is its constant recourse to hermeneutical categories of speaking and signifying, expression and communication, enigma and sense, as a way of clarifying the ethical relation of responsibility. Thus the face for Levinas is not a phenomenon—not something given to perception like a mask; rather, the face is a language without words, a primordial language that signifies of itself. “The face speaks” (TeI6i/TI66), but not in the sense that discourse emanates from its mouth. “The primordial
As Levinas elucidates it, the distinction between signification and sens entails a corresponding distinction between different dimensions of herme-neutics, an exegetical or historical-cultural dimension and a dimension of transcendence, that is, an ethical dimension that cuts across the limits of historical and cultural significations and therefore stands apart from the vast heterogeneous array of moral systems, each with its own logic and capacity for self-justification. Exactly how the difference between historical and ethical dimensions of hermeneutics is to be understood is perhaps most fully articulated in Levinas's 1964 essay “Meaning and Sense” (Signification etsens). Like Gadamer's hermeneutics, “Meaning and Sense” starts out from section 32 of Heidegger's Being and Time, with its idea that the intelligibility of things is not a given but is essentially a hermeneutical construction: namely, taking “something as something,” that is, understanding things in the context of our involvement with them or in our belonging-together within the world (SZ149/BT189). So Levinas: “There is no given already possessing identity. … To be given to consciousness [is to] be placed in an illuminated horizon—like a word, which gets the gift of being understood from the context to which it refers. The meaning [signification] would be the very illumination of this horizon” (HAH2O/CPP77). That is, the signification of a thing—and, ultimately, of being—is a relation of part and whole, a movement within a hermeneutical circle whose circumference is at once onto-logical and linguistic (or at all events semantic).
The given is present from the first qua this or that, that is, as a meaning [signification]. Experience is a reading, the understanding of meaning an exegesis, a hermeneutics, and not an intuition. This taken qua that—meaning is not a modification that effects a content existing outside of all language. Everything remains in a language or in a world, for the structure of the world resembles the order of language, with possibilities no dictionary can arrest. (HAH22/CPP78)
This is roughly what Gadamer means by saying, “Being that can be understood is language” (WM450/TM474). “In the this qua that,” Levinas says, “neither the this nor the that are first given outside of discourse…. There never was a moment meaning came to birth out of a meaningless being, outside of a historical position where language is spoken. And that is doubtless what is meant when we were taught that language is the house of being” (HAH23/CPP78-79).
This is to say (with Heidegger) that being is internal to time and history and so is distributed across multiple and heterogeneous cultures as a plurality of meanings. Being is epochal. Accordingly, as Levinas says, “Culture and artistic creation are part of the ontological order itself. They are onto-logical par excellence: they make the understanding of being possible” (HAHsS/CPPSs). Hence the universal—but also endlessly historical—scope of hermeneutics. “There exists no meaning in itself [signification en soi], which a thought would have been able to reach by jumping over the deforming or faithful but sensory reflections that lead to it. One has to traverse history or relive duration or start from concrete perception and the language established in it in order to arrive at the intelligible” (HAH31/ CPP83). In other words, being—“the intelligible”—is given in tradition: “All the picturesqueness of history, all cultures, are no longer obstacles separating us from the essential and the intelligible but ways that give us access to it. Even more! They are the only ways, the only possible ways, irreplaceable, and consequently implicated in the intelligible itself” (HAH31/ CPP83-84).
Unlike Gadamer, however, Levinas is no historicist. He is a moral realist for whom the absence of a meaning in itself—“the pure indifference of a multiplicity” distributed along a horizontal plane of historical and cultural differences (HAH4O/CPP89)—is an absurdity, a reduction of the ethical to the anthropological. To be sure, there is nothing outside of time and history, but for Levinas there is more to time and history than the epochal history of being. Granted that human cultures are multiple, heterogeneous, and entirely relative to one another (the others of each other but not of any One). What matters is that these cultures are porous and penetrable, thus allowing “the possibility of a Frenchman learning Chinese and passing from one culture into another.” But what about this passage? It is not just a lateral movement that would eventually assemble human cultures into an anthropological totality of cultural differences; rather, it discloses a deeper orientation. What is it, after all, that leads “a Frenchman to take up learning Chinese instead of declaring it to be barbarian (that is, bereft of the real virtues of language), to prefer speech to war?” (HAH39/CPP88). What is it to translate oneself into the other? Levinas sees in this translation the ethical movement of substitution or generosity, the essential movement of the one-for-the-other that gives the multiplicity of cultural meanings “a unique
One is reminded of the prophets who addressed the world from outside the city and its priestly codes. The other's address to me occupies this kind of transcendental position (exteriority with respect to the world as so many cultural structures): “the epiphany of the other involves a signifyingness [signifiance] of its own independent of [any] meaning received from the world. The other comes to us not only out of a context, but also without mediation; he signifies by himself” (HAH5O-5 i/CPPg5). Indeed, the idiom of
However, there is more: the epiphany of the face has a Platonic as well as a prophetic character. If “the ethical situation of responsibility is not comprehensible on the basis of an ethics” in the sense of moral system (I'ethique: AEigi/OTBiso), that is because the “unique sense” of the face is itself the basis of ethics; it is a transcendental condition of ethical judgment:
The saraband of innumerable and equivalent cultures, each justifying itself in its own context, creates a world which is, to be sure, de-occidentalized, but also disoriented. To catch sight, in meaning [signification], of a situation that precedes culture, to envision language out of the revelation of the other (which is at the same time the birth of morality) in the gaze of a man aiming at a man precisely as abstract man, disengaged from all culture, in the nakedness of his face, is to return to Platonism in a new way. It is also to find oneself able to judge civilizations in a new way. Meaning [signification], the intelligible, consists in a being showing itself in its nonhistorical simplicity, in its absolutely unqualifiable and irreducible nakedness, existing “prior to” history and culture. (HAH6o/CPPioi)
A “return to Platonism in a new way”? The point is that the face of the other is a supplication aimed at me (and no one else); it “imposes itself upon me without my being able to be deaf to its call or to forget it, that is, without my being able to stop holding myself responsible for its distress” (AE52-53 /OTBgG-gy). It is, Levinas says, “as though the whole edification of creation rested on my shoulders” (AE53/OTBg7). However, this burden also has a foundational meaning. If my responsibility disengages me “from all culture,” it also (and therefore) enables me “to judge civilizations” from a nonrelativist position, the way Levinas himself judges Kantian and utilitarian
otherwise than being. It no longer keeps accounts. … It destroys without leaving souvenirs, without transporting into museums the altars raised to the idols of the past for blood sacrifices, it burns the sacred groves in which the echoes of the past reverberate. The exceptional, extra-ordinary, transcendent character of the good is due to just this break with being and history. To reduce the good to being, to its calculations and its history, is to nullify goodness. (AE35-36/OTBi8)
As if what Levinas were proposing were a hermeneutics beyond tradition.
For Gadamer, of course, breaking with “being and history”—breaking with tradition—cannot be made intelligible and defensible for the very reason of human finitude. Grant all that Levinas says, my encounter with the other will always be within the horizon I inhabit; otherwise it will simply be unreal. The point is that my horizon is not a conceptual order in which the other would merely appear as an intelligible component. I do not inhabit my horizon simply as a cognitive agent grasping whatever is placed before me. Horizons are not reducible to perspectives or worldviews, which are essentially overdrawn metaphors of spectatorship. Neither are they totalities in the way Levinas imagines totality, namely as the world objectified by consciousness, a world whose components are integrated one with another according to a logic of identity or “the reduction of the other to the same.” For Gadamer, horizon is a concept of finitude, not of totality.
Part of what needs to be sorted out here is the difference between the ways Levinas and Gadamer think of history. In “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” Levinas speaks of “the conquest of being by man over the course of history” as if history were the history of consciousness expressing itself in ever-widening processes of rationalization and control (DEHHiGG/ CPP48). Not that this idea doesn't capture something, as readers of Max Weber and Adorno will quickly recognize. But for Gadamer history is incompatible with totality. History is precisely what resists rational ordering of every sort. This resistance, moreover, is not a defect to be overcome but a limit of reason, a fact of human finitude that exposes the (by turns comic and tragic) absurdity of modernity's ideal of “smooth functioning as a good in itself.” This conception of the historicity of history explains why Gada-mer's famous notion of the “fusion of horizons,” contrary to many quick summaries of it, has nothing to do with any logic of integration or unification of perspectives, but rather presupposes the ethical character of existence in which one's horizon—one's finitude—is defined by the proximity of others whose presence cannot be objectified: this is what the dialogical
ON THE PROXIMITY OF THE GOOD
Gadamer is a classicist who follows Plato in conceiving the ethical as the desire for the good, but his classicism is (like Levinas's) a return to Plato rather than a continuation of a certain reception of Plato within the history of philosophy. (Tradition is not repetition.) Thus in The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy Gadamer reads Plato against Aristotle's charge that Plato's conception of the good is a supreme but empty Gsropia divorced from human life. It is true that in the Republic (5086) the good is the sun that radiates throughout the world but is inaccessible in itself. But in the later dialogues Plato's concern shifts away from the good as such. What matters to Plato in the Phikbus, Gadamer says, “is not the idea of the good but the good in human life” (GW7:144/1630). The desire for the good is not meant to take us out of the world but to enable us to inhabit it in the right way. The good is not a “supreme mathema” indifferent to human concerns; on the contrary, it is the human “turning away from the realm of the ideal to what is best in reality” (GW7:144/1630). The good is thus not an object of |j,a6s|j,a. “In the Philebus,” Gadamer says, “the good has precisely the function of providing practical orientation for the right and just life as this life is a mixture of pleasure and knowing” (GW7:145/1631). “Knowledge of the good,” Gadamer says, “is always with us in our practical life” (GW7:159/1657). In this respect the good as Plato (and Gadamer with him) conceives it is very close to Levinas's notion of a sens beyond being, which is likewise an orientation or movement rather than an idea.
For Levinas the good is also always with us, but it is so specifically and exclusively in the face of the other, which inspires in us the movement of one-for-the-other, that Levinas, citing the Philebus (506), characterizes as a desire “that is conditioned by no prior lack” (HAH48/CPPg5). In other
Would Gadamer think this good? I think in the end he might fault Levinas for setting the ethical relation too sharply against hermeneutics—for having, finally, too abstract a conception of the ethical or, indeed, what amounts to the same thing, for having an impoverished conception of hermeneutics, reducing hermeneutics to the purely logical procedure of con-textualization. For Gadamer, understanding constitutes the historical and practical condition for all human relations, social and political as well as ethical. The universal scope of hermeneutics moves from the ground up (rather the way, for Levinas, the ethical relation of proximity and singularity constitutes “the condition for all solidarity” and provides, moreover, for the possibility of justice that makes human life livable after all, even in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in the midst of modernity as “the era of “man-made mass death” (AEiSG/OTBuy). However, an account that would clarify the ethical as the condition of solidarity would, a Gadamerian might argue, require something very like a detour into hermeneutics.
For example, one might say that from Gadamer's perspective Levinas's conception of the ethical is too purely ethical, not sufficiently social (not
Language as the presence of the face does not invite complicity with the preferred being, the self-sufficient ‘I-Thou’ forgetful of the universe; in its frankness it refuses the clandestinity of love, where it loses its frankness and meaning and turns into laughter and cooing. The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other—language is justice. It is not that there first would be the face, and then the being it manifests or expresses would concern himself with justice; the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity.” (Tel234/ TI213)
So (this would be Gadamer's point) the ethical does not and cannot stand by itself, outside of every context, because my responsibility to and for the other cannot stop with the other but opens onto (among other things) politics, where responsibility entails responsiveness to the here-and-now exigencies of social action.
At all events Gadamer glosses the formula “beyond being” (en&x&iva i&C, ouaiac;) by locating it precisely within the here and now. For Gadamer (in contrast to Levinas), “The good is no longer the one” (GW'j: iga/IGi 15). The good belongs to the hermeneutical domain of the “between” where ethics and aesthetics (or, for all of that, cognition and action, theory and practice, the transcendent and the everyday, and so on through whatever list of oppositions one might devise) constitute a mixture that cannot be distilled into distinct orders of reality, much less into separate categories of experience. Here is where Gadamer differs most completely from Habermas, who divides the human life-world into separate cultural districts of science, social practice, and art, over which philosophy is then installed as a quasi-transcendental “guardian of rationality.” In the context of the Philebus, Gadamer says, ‘“the good,’ which is at the same time ‘the beautiful,’ does not exist somewhere apart for itself and in itself, somewhere ‘beyond.’ Rather, it exists in everything that we recognize as a beautiful mixture. What is viewed from the perspective of the Republic (or the Symposium) is here determined to be the structure of the ‘mixed’ itself. In each case it would seem to be found only in what is concretely good and beautiful” (GW'j: 192-937 IGi 15). This means that the good cannot be conceptualized apart from the question of how one should live within the contingencies in which one finds oneself. Or, in other words, at the end of the day, the question of the good is the question of cpgovrjatc;”.
1. For example, self-respect and the need to be free of self-reproach (the goals of “a rational plan of life”) are the main features of John Rawls's ethical theory. See A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), esp. 433-46. Much of contemporary moral philosophy sees ethics as a function of rational choice, where my concern is always with what will help me to achieve my goals, which comes down to the question of what comes back to me in the way of profit for my right conduct. In the long run decency toward others pays. The writings of Martin Hollis on this matter are very instructive. See, for example, The Cunning of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Levinas's philosophy can be read as a thoroughgoing critique of rational-choice theory. [BACK]
2. See Adriaan T. Peperzak, “On Levinas's Criticism of Heidegger,” in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 204-17. For a discussion of the ethical in Heidegger's thinking—where the ethical includes the relation to a nonhuman as well as human alterity—see Joanna Hodge, Heidegger and Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995). [BACK]
3. In “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” Levinas writes: “Cognition consists in grasping the individual, which alone exists, not in its singularity … but in its generality, of which alone there is science.” To which he adds:
And here every power begins. The surrender of exterior things to human freedom through their generality does not only mean … their comprehension, but also their being taken in hand, their domestication, their possession. Only in possession does the I complete the identification of the diverse. To possess is, to be sure, to maintain the reality of the one possessed, but to do so while suspending its independence. In a civilization which the philosophy of the same reflects, freedom is realized as a wealth. Reason, which reduces the other [to the same], is appropriation and power. (DEHHiGS/CPPso)
Likewise in “Ethics as First Philosophy,” Levinas writes:
In knowledge there … appears the notion of an intellectual activity or of a reasoning will—a way of doing something which consists … of seizing something and making it one's own, of reducing to presence and representing the difference of being, an activity which appropriates and grasps the otherness of the known. A certain grasp: as an entity, being becomes the characteristic property of thought, as it is grasped by it and becomes known. Knowledge as perception, concept [Begriff, from greifen, to grasp], comprehension, refers back to an act of grasping. The metaphor should be taken literally: even before any technical application of knowledge, it expresses the principle rather than the result of the future technological and industrial order of which every civilisation bears the seed. The immanence of the known to the act of knowing is already the embodiment of seizure. (LRy6) [BACK]
4. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 344-58. [BACK]
5. See Habermas, “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 43-115. [BACK]
6. On the social character of cppovrian;” see P. Christopher Smith, “The I-Thou Encounter (Begegnung) in Gadamer's Reception of Heidegger” (PHGG5i4-ig). See also Joseph Dunne, Bach to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy
7. See Gadamer, “Freundschaft und Selbsterkenntnis Zur Rolle der Freund-schaft in der grieschen Ethik” (GW7:3g6-4o6). [BACK]
8. See Adriaan Peperzak, “Transcendence,” in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 162-70. For Levinas, ontology and epistemology run together, so that “transcendence,” “beyond,” and “otherwise than being” refer to a dimension of existence outside the grasp of cognition, or beyond subjectivity conceived as spirit, consciousness, intentionality, or conceptual determination. This dimension of exteriority (on the hither side of being) is the dimension of ethical reality. [BACK]
9. A translation of the 1968 version of “Substitution” appears in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 79-95. [BACK]
10. The singular is, in other words, outside the relation of universal and particular, that is, it is an infinity outside every totality. As Plato puts it in the Parmenides (i64c), we are the others of each other, not of any one, “for there is no one.” See Totality and Infinity (Tel21-45/33-52), and “Transcendence and Height,” in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, 10-31, esp. 12: “The Other [I'Autre] thus presents itself as human Other [Autrui]; it shows a face and opens the dimension of height, that is to say, it infinitely overflows the bounds of knowledge.” [BACK]
11. That is—against Kant—responsibility is prior to freedom; it is not an exercise of autonomy. Levinas writes, “To be without a choice can seem to be violence only to an abusive or hasty and imprudent reflection, for it precedes the freedom non-freedom couple, but thereby sets up a vocation that goes beyond the limited and egoist fate of him who is only for-himself, and washes his hands of the faults and misfortunes that do not begin in his own freedom or in his present” (AEi83-84/OTBn6). [BACK]
12. Levinas scholars have still not come to terms with these concepts of obsession, persecution, and hostage as descriptions of the structure and condition of the ethical subject. What seems generally recognized is that these terms are meant to define the radical character of a passivity that situates the subject outside the alternatives of the active or passive voice. Passivity, as Levinas understands it, is absolute, that is, outside (for example) the master-slave relation, where submission is still a position that one occupies as a consequence of one's decision (not to risk death, for example), whereas “the passivity more passive than all passivity” refers to a passion in which one is gripped or possessed before one realizes it. Passivity means being porous, subject to the passage whereby the other is inside my skin. [BACK]
13. In Otherwise than Being Levinas characterizes the condition of despite oneself in
14. See Bernasconi, “‘Only the Persecuted’: Language of the Oppressor, Language of the Oppressed,” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Lev-inas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak (London: Rout-ledge, 1995), 85. [BACK]
15. In an essay “Response and Responsibility in Levinas” in Ethics as First Philosophy, Bernhard Waldenfels emphasizes the face-to-face relation of responsibility as constitutive of human subjectivity:
Behind somebody who “gives himself” when giving an answer, there is no person in the form of the nominative. There is neither a sovereign speaker or actor preceding the responding nor a judge considering both sides; the respondent who does not merely transform existing sense becomes what he is by and in the very process of responding. He or she is not a subject in the traditional sense, “underlying” certain acts, but a respondent through and through, who in a certain sense remains unknown to him-or herself. If we want to continue calling him a “subject,” then we do so in the sense of his “subjection” to the demands of the Other. (42) [BACK]
16. Peperzak, Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 104. [BACK]
17. Levinas distinguishes between Saying (leDire) and the Said (leDit), where Saying is a movement toward the other, “the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability” (AE82/OTB48), whereas the Said is the product of a logical movement in which I take a position toward something, thematize it propositionally, fix it as an object (AE65/OTB37). [BACK]
18. The “height” of the Other is not a position of strength but, paradoxically, one of destitution and weakness. In Totality and Infinity Levinas writes: “The being that presents himself in the face comes from a dimension of height, a dimension of transcendence whereby he can present himself as a stranger without opposing me as an obstacle or enemy. More, for my position as / [moi] consists in being able to respond to the essential destitution of the Other, finding resources for myself. The Other who dominates me in his transcendence is thus the stranger, the widow, the orphan, to whom I am obligated” (Tel237/Tl2i5). [BACK]
19. See James Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer's PhilosophicalHermeneutics (Albany, NY: SUNYPress, 1997), 172-82. Risser points out that, in contrast to Paul Ricoeur's “hermeneutics of the text,” Gadamer's is “a her-meneutics of the voice,” and that the concept of voice entails conditions of proximity, even intimacy, such that I am never in a position in which I can simply take over
every speaking is a speaking to the other as a desire for the other. There is always in the communicative situation the voice of the other as the desired voice. In this context it is difficult to understand how the event of understanding can be construed as appropriation, as making something one's own, turning the event of understanding into a unity of understanding …. [For] Gadamer it is precisely the voice of the other that breaks open what is one's own, and remains there—a desired voice that cannot be suspended—as the partner in every conversation. (181) [BACK]
20. See Gadamer's remarks on participation in “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 64. In Truth and Method Gadamer writes, “Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition” (WM274-75/TM2go). [BACK]
21. See Gerald L. Bruns, “On the Tragedy of Hermeneutical Experience,” in Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 179-94, esp. 183-84. [BACK]
22. The section “Substitution” in Otherwise than Beingputs it more extravagantly: the encounter with the other “is an accusation without foundation, prior to any movement of the will, an obsessional and persecuting accusation. It strips the ego of its pride and the dominating imperialism characteristic of it. The subject is in the accusative, without recourse in being, expelled from being, outside of being, like the one in the first hypothesis of Parmenides, without a foundation, reduced to itself, and thus without condition. In its own skin” (AEi74-75/OTBi 10). [BACK]
23. It should be noticed, however, that Gadamer goes on to say that self-understanding should not be construed as self-possession [Selbstbesitzes]: “For the self-understanding only realizes itself in the understanding of a subject-matter and does not have the character of a free self-realization The self that we are does not possess itself; one could say that it ‘happens’” (GW2:13O/PH55). Here Gadamer and Levinas are very close. Self-understanding is an event in which the self journeys out of itself. Gadamer cites the example of Augustine, for whom the self is inaccessible except in its exposure to God. [BACK]
24. Speaking of Gadamer's hermeneutics in terms of a desire for the other, James Risser writes, “The voice of the other, as desired, draws one beyond oneself, to think with the other, ‘and to come back to oneself as if to another’” (Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 182). See Gadamer's essay “Destruhtion and Deconstruction” [DDno/GW2:26g]). [BACK]
25. Possibly Levinas blurs Heidegger's distinction between the “hermeneutical ‘as,’” in which the structure of something-as-something concerns whatever is ready-at-hand within our everyday practical concern, and the “apophantical ‘as,’” in which something is objectified by means of an assertion and so stands before us “as a ‘what’” (SZi587BT200). [BACK]
26. A “past that was never present” is Levinas's way of figuring the concept of the
27. One of Blanchot's essays on Levinas is entitled “The Relation of the Third Kind: Man without Horizon,” in The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 66-74. For Blanchot the other is outside every world; he (if he is the word) belongs to the outside as such, which one might describe in terms of space as surface rather than as volume, so that the other is always in a condition of exile, traversing the surface of the earth in endless restlessness since he is incapable of experiencing space except as radical exteriority. [BACK]
28. See “Notes on Planning for the Future” (EPHi6g). [BACK]
29. See Gerald L. Bruns, “What is Tradition?” in Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, 208-11. [BACK]
30. Maurice Blanchot poses just this question in “The Relation of the Third Kind.” Blanchot's argument is that if one is to pursue Levinas's own thought rigorously, and to situate the other in an absolute transcendence, radical alterity must be thought of as neutral, that is, neither human nor nonhuman but in excess of every category or name, even beyond the unnameable name of negative theology (God): “autrui [Blanchot insists on the lower case] is a name that is essentially neutral and that, far from relieving us of all responsibility of attending to the neutral, it reminds us that we must, in the presence of the other who comes to us as Autrui, respond to the depth of strangeness, of inertia, of irregularity and idleness [desceuvremmt] to which we open when we seek to receive the speech of the Outside” (TheInfinite Conversation, 71-72). The “depth of strangeness” would therefore be a region more transcendent than that of the ethical relation of myself and another: for Blanchot it would be the region of poetry or writing (the region of exile or absolute noniden-tity). See Gerald L. Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). [BACK]
31. See Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and the Era of Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989). [BACK]
32. See also Levinas, “The Ego and Totality” (EN3o-38/CPP2g-35). [BACK]
33. See Habermas, “Philosophy as Stand-in and Interpreter,” Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, esp. 14-20. [BACK]
4. Gadamer and Romanticism
The contemporary Western philosophical scene can be characterized in terms of divisions and interactions between approaches to philosophy which assume that their task is inextricably linked to the development of the natural sciences and approaches which often regard this assumption with considerable suspicion. Philosophers who adopt the former approach have the obvious advantage that the project of which they see themselves as a part produces more and more results which are in principle—if not in practice—publicly testable and which appear to confirm their underlying assumption that science is converging towards an already constituted reality as it is “in itself”. One disadvantage of this project for its philosophical adherents, however, is that it becomes, as the work of the later Heidegger already suggested, increasingly unclear what its “philosophical” aspect is actually for. As Richard Rorty's remark against representational theories of truth—“Instead of seeing progress as a matter of getting closer to something specifiable in advance, we see it as a matter of solving more problems” —makes clear, it is possible to adopt realist or antirealist assumptions (or neither) as a working scientist (or as a philosopher) without that affecting one's belief in the value of a particular scientific theory; and even if philosophical arguments help in the genesis of theories, this cannot, on pain of circularity, legitimate either the arguments or the theories themselves. Those who suspect the close link between philosophy and natural science, on the other hand, face the evident disadvantage that the explanatory and technical success of the modern sciences seems to render philosophical questions of their kind about the truth generated by those sciences redundant. The advantage they have over their opponents, though, is that even if it is the case that natural science has now developed so far that it does not need philosophy, they can still make appeals to the stubbornly persistent intuition
What is at issue here, of course, is a version of the debate between what are often thought of as “Enlightenment” and “Romantic” forms of thinking, which has also, in this century, been termed the debate between “positivism” and “Romanticism.” Given the nature of academic philosophy, the gap between the sides has in recent times led to an ever more specialized concentration on trying to account for how the sciences represent or converge on the truth about the world on the part of much “Enlightenment” philosophy, and to a sometimes equally rarefied concern with interrogations of the technological domination of nature made possible by the success of the sciences on the part of some “Romantic” philosophy. However, the rigidity characteristic of the worst versions of both sides has contrasted unfavorably with the attitude of those who have sought ways of mediating between the sides, and it will be one of my contentions that such mediation is in fact part of the thought which has the best claims to the title of “Romantic.” A number of notable American philosophers trained in the analytical tradition have, for example, come to think that scientism may be as much a danger as antiscientific irrationalism. John McDowell sees the problem with scientism as follows: “When we ask the metaphysical question whether reality is what science can find out about, we cannot, without begging the question, restrict the materials for an answer to those that science can countenance.” On the other hand, “continental” thinkers like Jurgen Habermas, while articulating worries about the effects of the dominant technological role of the sciences, have given often very necessary reminders that the alternatives to a modernity founded to a large extent upon the results of the natural sciences are not necessarily as appealing as the more extreme critics of “Western rationality” might suggest. Despite their very different backgrounds, such thinkers evidently meet on territory established by Kant that is further explored in Romantic philosophy, and in the hermeneutic
As is well known, Gadamer offers, in Truth and Method and other work, one of the most influential postwar “Romantic” stories about the development of modernity, which questions perceived distortions introduced by the Enlightenment into Western philosophy. A major motivation of Gada-mer's story is summed up in his assertion that “I wanted to show that it is not right to separate the question of art from the question of truth and to deprive art of all the knowledge it can communicate to us” (GW8:ao3). He outlines the origin of the problem this entails as follows: “Only when philosophy and metaphysics got into crisis in relation to the cognitive claims of the sciences did they discover again their proximity to poetry which they had denied since Plato…. Since then it makes sense to acknowledge the autonomous claim to truth of literature, but this takes place at the price of an unexplained relationship to the truth of scientific knowledge” (GW8: 287). In the wake of Kant's attempt to overcome the crisis of cognitive foundations occasioned by Hume and others, the first thinkers seriously to work out philosophical ways of thinking about the truth communicated by art were the early German Romantics, among whom I count, besides Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, Schleiermacher and, at times, Schelling. As we shall see later, in the light of the work of Manfred Frank, the aspect of Romantic philosophy which leads these thinkers to the question of art is their conviction that the attempt to ground modern philosophy in the activity of the subject cannot succeed, because the subject is not fully transparent to itself. It is now widely accepted that the main contribution of Gadamer's own work to contemporary philosophy is a rearticulation of the relationship between the claims to truth of art and of the humanities, and the truths of the sciences. However, part of that contribution involves a story about Romantic philosophy which includes a number of questionable contentions. I shall make some interpretative, philological, and historical points against that story in what follows, but I am also concerned to offer a few fragments of an account that is different from Gadamer's of how the interrogation of the truth of art and the truth of the sciences that begins with Romanticism plays a role in reflections about the nature of philosophy today.
Just what is meant by “Romanticism” is still essentially contested, and it is pointless to try to conjure away the tensions now present in the term. Let us, then, take a specific historical example of a phenomenon often linked with Romantic thinking in order to see how this tension becomes apparent. In his essay “Poetry and Mimesis” of 1972 Gadamer discusses the move away from an aesthetics of “representation” in the eighteenth century, claiming that, as
The major philosophical questions which emerge at the end of the eighteenth century and which remain significant today concern how one should respond to this situation, especially given the success of the sciences in producing results despite the epistemological doubts that accompany that success. Gadamer's remarks refer to one extreme—and putatively “Romantic”—response, which is to valorize a language supposedly wholly constituted by the subjective, the “immediate language of the heart,” that can be construed as refusing to partake of the objective realm. Toward the end of the eighteenth century music comes to be regarded by a particular group of thinkers as a language which articulates the emergent inner individuality of the subject. The need for such a language relates to the fact that this individuality is threatened simultaneously by some of the very advances in knowledge and the social changes in modernity which enabled it to emerge in the first place. The perception of music in question is apparent, for example,
Gadamer's own view of music is more differentiated than this—he claims, for example, that “Every composition of ‘absolute music’ has [the] structure of being a relation to meaning [Sinnbezug] without a key [Schlussel]” (GW8:324)—but he does share Hegel's suspicion of the notion of mere subjective expression associated with music, and this suspicion is carried over into aspects of his conception of Romanticism. The question is, then, whether this suspicion will allow an adequate characterization of the philosophical consequences inherent in the move away from representational-ism associated with the change in status of music in the early Romantic period. Before this issue can be addressed we need to look at other aspects of Gadamer's conception in order to clarify his relationship to Romantic philosophy.
Gadamer's account of the wider significance of the constellation sketched here relies on his particular story about modern philosophy. In this story, both the suspicion of “prejudice” in the Enlightenment that follows from the demand to bring everything established before the “tribunal of reason” and the concomitant disempowering of tradition lead to the idea that the only reliable truth is arrived at by the methods of the natural sciences, which objectify the natural world. Other forms of articulation therefore come to be seen, in the manner we have just observed with regard to music, as being reliant on individual taste and individual feeling, so that the ground of the new philosophical discipline of aesthetics is thereby “subjectified.” Gadamer's alternative to aesthetic theory's supposed adoption of a narrow conception of truth from the natural sciences relies on the demonstration that “understanding is never a subjective relationship towards a given ‘object’, but belongs rather to the effective history, and that means: to the being of that which is understood” (WMxix). This is because the model of the subject confronted with the art object in a manner analogous to the scientist with her object of investigation is untenable as an account of the experience of art:
We never find ourselves in the situation of being the pure contemplator of or listener to a work of art, for in a certain sense we are always participants in the transmission. The aim of grasping the inner structure and the connectedness of a work is, as such, not sufficient to remove all the prejudices which stem from the fact that we are ourselves within a tradition. (APgo)
Being in a tradition means being subjected to a happening of meaning which always transcends the individual's ability to articulate that meaning. In Gadamer's terms “effective historical consciousness” is “more being [Sein] than consciousness [Bewusstsein], i.e. more historically effected and determined than conscious in its being effected and determined” (GW3:22i). Consequently, the very idea of a division between a subject and its object cannot be sustained, because the individual subject's meanings are—even before the subject develops a reflexive ability to think about them—inextricably bound up with already disclosed meanings which constitute the world it encounters, and which form, via the notion of “effective historical consciousness,” what Gadamer means by “tradition.”
The method of the natural sciences, Gadamer maintains, requires the elimination of merely contingent subjective apprehensions of their object, in order to arrive at what the object has in common with other objects of the same kind. In the wake of one aspect of the work of Dilthey, Gadamer understands the development of nineteenth-century historiography and the other Geisteswissenschaften as leading to the attempt to objectify what has been historically transmitted, in order to establish a method for the human sciences that is analogous to that of the natural sciences. His own project, on the other hand, is to “seek out the experience of truth which exceeds [ubersteigt] the realm of control of scientific method … and to interrogate it as to its own legitimation” (WMxxvii). As such, “along with the experience of philosophy, the experience of art is the most emphatic warning to scientific consciousness to acknowledge its limits” (WMxxviii). Gadamer's response to the “subjectivism” of Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics is, therefore, a conception in which “The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and persists, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it, but the work of art itself” (WMg8). A decisive methodological and historical link is thus established between the idea of natural science as the subject's means of control over the object and the rise of aesthetics, in which both are interpreted as part of the subject's attempt to arrogate to itself the right to determine truth. Gadamer's alternative conception relies on the subversion of that subject by the fact that it can never finally step outside the ways in which it is formed by tradition, so that “we are always very much more and other than what we know of ourselves, and … what exceeds us and our knowledge is precisely our real being” (GW8:327). How, then, does this relate to what I mean by “Romanticism”?
Given my remarks at the outset, one might have expected that a project which regards the limits of self-knowledge as a crucial aspect of our self-interpretation and aims to salvage a truth not countenanced by the analytical method of the natural sciences would see itself as at least partly in line with a Romanticism which produced such claims as Friedrich Schlegel's that—because of our inherently temporal nature—“Every person is only a piece of themselves,” and his wonderful dictum that “If the chemist thinks a thing is not a whole because he can dissect it, that is just the same as what bad critics do to literature.—Didn't the world emerge from slime?’ Such parallels occur in other areas as well. Remembering the close connections between the idea of “philosophy” and the idea of “science” of the time, Schelling's claim in 1800 that art is “the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy, which always and continuously documents what philosophy cannot represent externally” initiates the explicit link of art and philosophy which Gadamer regards as so important. When Gadamer says of poetic language that “Where language exists in such a manner it is absolved of the function of pointing something out that is also presentable in another manner and thereby shows itself in its own function” (GW8:59), it is easy to think of Novalis's provocative antirepresentationalist speculation on “Poems, just pleasant sounding and full of beautiful words, but also without any meaning or context … like fragments of the most diverse things. True poetry can at the most have an allegorical meaning as a whole and an indirect effect, like music etc.” Gadamer's remark that “It is a mysterious form of the non-differentiation of what is said from the way it is said which gives art its specific unity and lightness and precisely thereby its own way of being true” (GW8:294) suggests a complex relationship between language and music, of the kind present in Novalis's assertion that the poet's “words are not universal signs—they are notes—magic words which move beautiful groups around themselves … for the poet language is never too poor but always too universal.” Furthermore, when Gadamer claims “It is paradoxical enough that one…speaks of art-criticism. It does not actually consist in differentiating good and bad in the work of art, but in differentiating something as a ‘successful’ work of art from an unsuccessful one or from something that has just been thrown together” (GW8:252), he echoes Novalis's contention that “Criticism of literature [Poesie] is an absurdity. It is already difficult to decide, yet the only possible decision, whether something is literature or not.” However, despite all these parallels—and there are plenty more—if one looks at Truth and Method, the only appearances of the Romantics are a few remarks by Schlegel, with little or no reference to the wider context of Romantic thought, and the more extensive critical appraisal of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics as part of the process of reduction of truth to what is produced by the method of the natural sciences that is inaugurated by Kant's “subjectivization of aesthetics.”
The immediate objection to the parallels just cited between the Romantics and Gadamer might be, given the intellectual context of the Romantics at the end of the eighteenth century, that what they meant by these assertions is very different from what Gadamer means. However, things are not that simple. Gadamer's own account of interpretation is meant to reveal why interpretation can never be a simple historicist representation of aspects of thought of the past—that would be precisely the kind of objectification the theory is intended to counter—but is rather a “fusion of horizons” with what is to be interpreted, as part of the happening of “tradition.” Furthermore, an awareness of the context of the Romantics, of the kind which Gadamer himself invokes for his presentation of the thinkers upon whom he does concentrate, soon makes it clear that his story offers only one—often very selective—perspective on these issues. It is therefore no longer obvious how the criteria of selection for the figures he concentrates on are to be legitimated, if not by the story he constructs about modern philosophy's being almost wholly dominated by the idea of objectification. I shall look at some consequences of this question later, but it is worth pointing out already that if the content of Gadamer's story is put into question by the proposal of an equally compelling or superior narrative, the conclusions he draws from his story concerning the nature of modernity themselves also cease to be wholly compelling, because they rely on the “effective history” of the texts he invokes to establish his story in the first place.
The central problem can be illustrated by the following example. In Truth and Method Gadamer gives an account of the difference between what he presents as two opposed strands of thought, epitomized by Schleiermacher's and Hegel's views of the hermeneutic task, in which Schleiermacher stands for the objectifying “reconstruction” of the “original determination of the work” (WMi58), and Hegel for the “integration” of the work into a “thinking mediation with contemporary life” (WMiGi). According to Gadamer, Schleiermacher objectifies interpretation in a manner which Hegel does not, Hegel's procedure being closer in this respect to what Gadamer himself intends. The problem is that Gadamer's interpretation of Schleiermacher is tendentious at best, and in certain respects demonstrably misguided. He claims, for example, that the conception of Schleiermacher's which had the most influence was, rather than the early conception influenced by his friendship with Friedrich Schlegel in the 1790-5, probably his later conception in Hermeneutics and Criticism, published by Friedrich Liicke in 1838. According to Gadamer, in the later conception subjectivist “technical interpretation,” in which, as Schleiermacher puts it in 1805, “language with its determining power disappears and only appears as the organ of the person, in the service of their individuality,” plays a more dominant role than “grammatical interpretation,” in which “the person … disappears and appears only as the organ of the language.” However, Wolfgang Virmond has now
Schleiermacher in fact uses “art” (Kunst) both in the sense of the Greek “techne,” meaning ability, capacity, and in the sense related to the new aesthetic
“Romanticism” is still widely regarded as the movement in modern European society which gave primacy to the creative and autonomous aspects of the subject over what could be understood about that subject in objectifying “Enlightenment” terms. This image has, though, increasingly come to be seen as inadequate to the complexity of what we mean by Romanticism, as the following example from the present discussion can suggest. Gadamer himself now regards his distorted picture of Schleiermacher in Truth and Method as being a result of his failure to take adequate account of Schleier-macher's Dialektik, which relates to Schleiermacher's hermeneutics in the following manner: “Language only exists via thought, and vice versa; each can only complete itself via the other. The art of explication and translation [hermeneutics] dissolves language into thought; dialectic dissolves thought into language.” As such, given the role of hermeneutics and dialectic as the necessary complements of each other in Schleiermacher, it cannot be the case that the ground of understanding is some kind of direct intuitive contact with another subject, or a direct apprehension of objects in the world. At the same time, though, Schleiermacher is also convinced that language alone does not determine the access we have to the world: if the de-terminacy of thought requires the fixity provided by the limited number of elements in a language, language in turn requires the spontaneity of the individual
The reason for Gadamer's failure in relation to Schleiermacher is, though, less contingent than his failure to consult one particular text, because his misconception actually follows quite straightforwardly from part of the larger story that he presupposes as the basis of his desire to formulate an alternative conception of hermeneutics. Despite all Gadamer's invaluable revisions of, and improvements to, Heidegger's conception—notably his rejection of the untenable idea of the “language of metaphysics”—his story still relies upon aspects of Heidegger's account of modern philosophy, an account which has continued to have enormous effects on the most varied kinds of contemporary theory, particularly via the influence of post-structuralism's adoption of its diagnosis of the role of the subject in modernity (see Frank for the best critical account of this issue). From Descartes, to Hegel's claim that “the substance is subject,” to Husserl's search for the “principle of all principles,” Heidegger maintains, the “concern [Sache] of philosophy … is subjectivity.” This startling assertion is explained by what Heidegger regards as being behind Descartes's adoption of the cogito as the fundamentum inconcussum: “To the essence of the subjectivity of the subjectum and of man as subject belongs the unconditioned de-limitation of the domain of possible objedification and of the right to decision about this ob-jectification,” so that man himself “guarantees the certainty of the know-able.” Heidegger's development of this position into a verdict on the whole of “Western metaphysics,” which he later comes to equate with natural science itself, is well known and need not detain us for long here, not least because Gadamer, while still claiming that “in the background of the whole of modern thought stands the Cartesian characterization of consciousness as self-consciousness” (GWa:i48), is rather more circumspect about the implications of such a view of the subject in modern philosophy.
If philosophy is, as Hegel put it, its “age grasped in thought,” philosophers who correspond to what is assumed about the age in other respects are likely to become part of a self-confirming picture. The philosophical story about the foundational status of the subject which begins with Descartes,
Gadamer is in certain respects aware of this when he suggests that “It is the philosophy of German Idealism, Romantic literature, and the discovery of the historical world in Romanticism which have shown themselves up till now to be an effective countermovement within the process of Enlightenment in modernity” (GW8:i63). The problem in Gadamer's approach, though, is that radical reassessments of our self-understanding are homogenized into a narrative of tradition which, as has often been pointed out, has similarities with the movement of Hegel's all-consuming Geist, the ultimate dominating “super subject.” Hegel's view of the subordination of the individual subject to Geist—which was precisely what Schleiermacher opposed in Hegel—is also consistent with Gadamer's view of the relationship of the subject to the work of art, in which the work of art “subjects” its recipient to its truth, rather than the recipient, as Schleiermacher saw her, also generating this truth by enabling new aspects of the work to reveal new aspects of the world. Gadamer wants to account for the indisputable fact that certain great works of art, which have transcended their context of genesis and which have remained significant in ever new contexts, are not susceptible to the kind of temporality encountered in the sciences, where validity is often very ephemeral. His underlying idea is apt to experiences like being subjected to the power of a musical work which always transcends our ability to exhaust its potential, a potential which is never fully realized in the work's performances, and in the thoughts and feelings the work evokes at any particular time. However, the approach is also too one-sided in that it transfers too many of the attributes of an admittedly inept conception of the aesthetic subject into the work itself, as though the (metaphorical) active authority of the work from the past always took precedence over the new possibilities of understanding which depend on the activity of its present and future interpreters.
Behind all these matters lies the question of the subject and its relation to truth in modernity, and it is here that the Romantic contribution has
It was J. G. Hamann who probably first explicitly proposed the inversion of the cogito, in which being is understood as preceding consciousness, rather than vice versa, in a letter to F. H. Jacobi in 1785, and Jacobi developed the idea in some detail immediately after this. The fact is that Jacobi revealed the problems of grounding modern philosophy in a way that directly or indirectly affected nearly every significant subsequent German philosopher. His decisive argument is simple: if all our knowledge is of determinate facts, and such knowledge is only intelligible via its relation to other determinate facts, and if, furthermore, each thing depends for its identity on its relations to other things, we are left in both cases with the threat of an infinite regress that renders incomprehensible our undoubted sense of a world of intelligible things.
This problem has reappeared in a variety of guises, suggesting the continuing centrality of Romantic thought within modern philosophy. Hans Albert's Popper-influenced “Critical Rationalism,” which played a crucial role in the Positivism Dispute of the igGos between Adorno and Habermas, and Popper and Albert, talks, for example, of the “Munchhausen Trilemma” that results from the attempt to use Leibniz's “principle of sufficient reason” to ground knowledge. The attempt definitively to ground knowledge is either, as Jacobi already showed in relation to precisely this principle, an infinite regress of reasons for reasons, or a circular argument that relies on reasons which themselves require grounding, or a breaking off of the attempt
A vital problem which Fichte himself came to be aware of, and which the Romantics explored in detail, is that there seems to be no way of explicating the structure of subjectivity which does not entail just presupposing what is to be explicated. In what Henrich terms, in the light of Fichte's “essential insight” into the problem in 1797, the “reflection model”—the model common to Descartes and others in the Enlightenment tradition—the circle in the explanation results from the attempt to explain the phenomenon that is myself in the same way as any part of the objective world. As Novalis put it in 1795-96, “Can I look for a schema for myself, if I am that which schematizes?” If I am to know the object that is myself as myself I must already be familiar with myself in a way which does not depend upon an objectifying reflection. One can look in a mirror and be infallibly aware that one is seeing someone without being aware that the someone is oneself, so that the object side of the reflection makes no contribution to this kind of self-awareness. Consequently, reflexive, prepositional self-knowledge, knowledge of oneself as object, is fallible in away that immediate self-knowledge is not. The experience of “qualia” and the ability to ascribe experiences to myself as my experiences are the increasingly widely accepted nonobjectifiable aspects of self-consciousness which the contemporary philosophy of mind sees as confirming both that the reflection model cannot provide an adequate account of self-consciousness and that the language via which self-consciousness is articulated is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of self-consciousness. Henrich sums up the core
The question therefore becomes how to think about that which resists objectification and representation and yet is essential, as Kant had shown in his demonstration of the necessity for that which will bind together different intuitions, to the possibility of truth. Schleiermacher gives a good condensed version of a Romantic conception of the subject in the following passage from his Dialektik:
as thinkers we are only in the single act [of thought]; but as beings we are the unity of all single acts and moments. Progression is only the transition from one [reflexive] moment to the next. This therefore takes place through our being, the living unity of the succession of the acts of thought. The transcendent basis of thought, in which the principles of linkage are contained, is nothing but our own transcendent basis as thinking being…. The transcendent basis must now indeed be the same basis of the being which affects us as of the being which is our own activity.
Frank explains the basic conception as follows: “Being—the Absolute—is no longer a content of consciousness, but rather a presupposition which we must necessarily make if we want to explain the unity of our self-consciousness, which is split into a subject-and an object-pole.” The nature of this being is bound up with the Romantic understanding of art in a manner close to Gadamer, because both positions regard the transcendence of being over reflexive consciousness as best understood via the experience of art.
As we have seen, Gadamer regards the truth manifest in art as a happening of tradition which transcends the contingent responses of the individual subject. Frank has suggested, though, that Gadamer's own idea of tradition may itself involve the aporias of the reflection model, because the truth about myself can only be approached via the recognition of myself in the mirror of linguistic “effective historical consciousness,” which results in another version of the problem of objectifying the subjective outlined above. Frank finds an alternative conception precisely in the early Romantics, who reject Fichte's idea of the subject as prior constitutive ground of philosophy and connect this version of antifoundationalism to the experience of art—in which the failure to be ground of oneself is experienced in the failure to
The question which links the different approaches here is how to respond to the ever more widespread doubts about the possibility—or even desirability—of foundationalism. In this respect the conception of science as founded on the self-certainty of the subject proposed by Heidegger, although historically mistaken, does have the virtue of suggesting how “Enlightenment” positions of many kinds rely on something which has to claim to be self-confirming, if the regress discussed above is to be avoided. The point of both idealist and materialist views for Heidegger is that they require a final, articulable ground, for example in the self-certainty of the subject, or in the assumption of the ultimate possibility of a physicalist reduction of that subject to its material ground. How, then, is the relationship between the “Enlightenment” and the “Romantic” sides of modern philosophy now to be understood, given the problems in the story upon which Gadamer relies?
Two differing “Romantic” alternatives seem to me most revealing in the light of the questions with which we began. One is the early German Romantic conception, now reestablished by the work of Frank, in which the recognition of the inability of philosophy to establish an absolute ground in the manner sought by the Cartesian tradition leads to the idea of truth as a regulative idea to be approached in “endless approximation,” an idea which is understood, though not explained, via the subject's experience of the inexhaustibility of the work of art. The other, highly influential—and related—contemporary alternative, which highlights issues also raised by Gadamer, is Rorty's Nietzsche-influenced conception of a pragmatist “Romantic polytheism,” which regards even a regulative idea of truth as remaining within the Christian-Platonist representationalist tradition. Given that, for Rorty, there is nothing which can unite the differing senses in which the word “truth” is used, the very notion of a goal of inquiry or a moral ideal which is supposed to be endlessly approached but never attained is at best a. focus imaginarius, albeit one which “is none the worse for being an invention rather than (as Kant thought it) a built-in feature of the human mind.” As we shall see, Gadamer's conception involves aspects of both alternatives.
Gadamer comes close to Rorty—though in a manner which Rorty regards as being too reliant on a big philosophical story—because he also does not regard truth as a goal, thinking of it instead as a temporal happening which becomes manifest in the transmission of the work of art. However, this conception is open to questions that were already being asked in early Romantic philosophy. The basic problem is that the conception can be seen as too readily surrendering the—admittedly only counterfactual—
Clearly the difficult problem here is how to cash out the notion of truth if we do not accept a correspondence theory. Perhaps surprisingly, Rorty is happy to admit that” ‘true’ is an absolute term,” and he claims that “Davidson has helped us realize that the very absoluteness of truth is a good reason for thinking ‘true’ indefinable and for thinking that no theory of the nature of truth is possible. It is only the relative about which there is anything to say.” These assertions take us right to the heart of the Romantic conception, as these characteristic remarks from Novalis's so-called “Fichte-Studies” of 1796 make clear. Novalis ponders the idea of philosophy as the search for the ultimate ground of truth and asks what would be the case if “the absolute ground” were unattainable, claiming that “the drive to philosophy would [then] be an endless activity,” and that, in consequence—and this is compatible with Rorty's assertion—“The absolute which is given to us can only be known negatively by our acting and finding that what we are seeking is not attained by any action.” As such, “All seeking after the First is nonsense—it is a regulative idea,” so that grounding, either from the outset, as in Fichte, or in anticipation of the absolute Idea at the end, as later in Hegel, is never definitive. Rorty's Nietzschean question here is whether there is therefore any point in pursuing something whose existence is merely hypothetical, on the assumption that, despite all, this is what most of
Schlegel suggests a partial difference from Rorty when, while asserting, like Novalis, that “There is no absolute truth,” he also claims that “this spurs on the spirit and drives it to activity.” To counter the obvious objection to such assertions, Schlegel also admits that “If all truth is relative, then the proposition is also relative that all truth is relative.” Any proposition has, as Rorty also suggested, to introduce relativity into the absolute, because, as Novalis puts it, in relation to “A is A” as the statement of the absolute, “The essence of identity [of the “ideal” and the “real”] can only be established in a pseudo-proposition [Scheinsatz]. We leave the identical in order to represent it.” Schlegel therefore claims that “For a positive criterion of truth the truth itselfwould have already to be present and be given—which is therefore a contradiction,” because we would have presupposed what the criterion is supposed to enable us to discover. What lies behind Schlegel's assertions is apparent in his declaration elsewhere, which brings him close to Gadamer, that “In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible.” Complete understanding would render the pursuit of better—or other—ways of understanding redundant and the world would therefore become meaningless, because postfoundational meaning in this sense resides precisely in the idea that there is always more to be revealed, not in the convergence on a “ready-made world.”
The question is, though, whether one therefore renounces any notion of the totality on the grounds that, in Rorty's terms, the notion requires either the idea of an ultimate correspondence between thought and the world as it is independently of how we describe it, or the idea of an ultimate rendering commensurable of all vocabularies. The two kinds of idea in question are, of course, not necessarily the same, as the history of subsequent philosophy will make clear. With regard to the first idea, Rorty thinks that if there is no identifiable aspect of the world that definitively could be said to be what makes our sentences true, “there is nothing that can plausibly be described as a goal of inquiry, although the desire for further justification, of course, serves as a motive of inquiry.” Any more emphatic concern with
There is, of course, a further dimension to this issue. Rorty's rejection of the “subpropositional” also excludes precisely the dimension of “language” that becomes manifest when Romanticism takes seriously the meaning of the non-propositional form of music, a form which relies for its significance on agreements within a community about the need for articulations which transcend what can be said. If one takes a narrowly semantic view of “truth,” as Rorty sometimes does, there is no problem here, because music does not have meaning in this sense, but if “meaning” is what we understand when we understand something, there is evidently a sense in which music has to be meaningful to be music at all. Gadamer reminds one of the importance of this dimension even in everyday language use when he remarks that “The word which one says or which is said to one is not the grammatical element of a linguistic analysis, which can be shown in concrete phenomena of language acquisition to be secondary in relation, say, to the linguistic melody of a sentence” (GWs: 196).
Before trying to establish which differences make a real difference here, it is important to remember that the differences we have been exploring are accompanied by a substantial degree of agreement on some basic issues. For the Romantics, Rorty, and Gadamer we are always, albeit in different senses, in contact with reality, and all agree that this contact should not be thought of as based on representing the object world in an adequate manner. Schlegel says, thereby refusing the scheme/content division in the manner of Rorty, but at the same time retaining the regulative idea of the whole also seen in Putnam, that “One has always regarded it as the greatest difficulty to get from consciousness to reality [Daseyn]. But in our view this difficulty does not exist. Consciousness and reality appear here as the connected parts [Glieder] of a whole.” He takes the very fact that we come to refute previously held beliefs as the source of our inarticulable sense of truth: truth “arises where opposed errors neutralize each other … if we destroy error truth arises of its own accord.” Although new beliefs are themselves in turn open to revision because they are only partial, and they depend for
To this extent Schlegel's (and Novalis's) position can be seen as congruent with many of Gadamer's contentions about art as a corrective to the ob-jectifications of the natural sciences, which aim to reduce the being of the thing to the aspect which renders it subsumable into an explanatory theory. Frank, in “Unendliche Annaherung,” though, actually sees Schlegel's position as pointing to the need for a “metaphysical realist” interpretation of Romantic philosophy, because the conviction that being transcends consciousness leads to the idea of thought as correspondence to a reality which is independent of what we think about it. The problem here lies in the ever more tangled nature of the debate over realism: can the realist “view from nowhere” meaningfully be termed a ‘View’ in the same way as a view from somewhere, and how would we articulate a view from nowhere in a language which is itself always a view from somewhere? The fact is that Schlegel's position is equally compatible with a pragmatism or a hermeneutics which regards the realism/an tirealism and realism/idealism divisions as futile because of their reliance on a representational conception, which the world-disclosive nature of art undermines by its reminder of the constant possibility of rearticulation of what there is. Indeed, Schlegel himself explicitly rejects the correspondence theory of truth, which is generally regarded as essential to a realist position, because in it “the object would, as such, have to be compared with the representation; but that is not at all possible, because one only ever has a representation of the object, and thus can only ever compare one representation with another.” Truth cannot be seen as the “agreement of subjective and objective” because “reality … cannot be called either subject or object.” In a similar vein, Schleiermacher also says that “One could say that correspondence of thought with being is an empty thought, because of the absolute different nature and incommensurability of each.” Apel makes the basic point as follows, thus emphasizing one of the continuities I am concerned to establish here: “If one asked about the criterion of the presence of … adaequatio, then the answer would have to be given by an observer who located themself outside the subject-object relation
However, the problem remains that if something is postponed to infinity, there are grounds for assuming that it has no role to play in what we actually do that could not be better dealt with either in a more pragmatic manner, or in terms of Gadamer's notion that the temporality of understanding does not involve a privation but rather a multiplication of horizons. In common with the Romantics, Rorty rejects the notion of truth as correspondence, and he also uses attenuated notions of coherence of beliefs and communicative consensus, but the difference is that he thinks there is no substantial point in approaching these issues in terms of truth as regulative idea. As we saw above, Schleiermacher gave reasons of the kind Rorty also gives for questioning whether we can finally make distinctions between what the world contributes and what we contribute to knowledge, but he retained a more emphatic sense of truth, of the kind suggested by Putnam and Apel, insisting that “in language as well there is error and truth; even incorrect thought can become common to all.” Rorty refers to this idea as involving the “cautionary” use of “true,” which he sees as “a gesture toward future generations” who may find the contrary of what is now universally accepted a better way of talking about the world, rather than as involving truth as a regulative idea. So how are we to adjudicate between these differing conceptions of “Romantic” thought?
It should now be evident that the discussion has led into some of the most contentious debates in contemporary philosophy, and, of course, to the (intended) sense that we are in some senses little further on in resolving these debates than people were at the end of the eighteenth century. One point does, though, seem to be decisive, and it is encapsulated in the title of Apel's critical essay on Gadamer, cited above: “Regulative Idea or Happening of Truth?” which also sums up the difference which has underlain much of the preceding discussion. Let us conclude, then, by looking very briefly at the investment entailed by allegiance to one or the other side of the divide suggested by Apel's title in relation to the question with which we began. Rorty and Gadamer share with Schlegel and Schleiermacher the conviction that, although the natural sciences are indispensable to human survival, as Gadamer puts it, “this does not mean that people would be able to solve the problems that face us, peaceful coexistence of peoples, and the preservation of the balance of nature, with science as such. It is obvious that not mathematics but the linguistic nature of people is the basis of human civilization” (GW8:342). The strength of this position lies in its widening of the focus of philosophical reflection beyond the narrow analytical concern
The vital hermeneutic idea which Gadamer has done so much to render convincing, and which was made possible by Romantic thought, is that the method of the sciences depends upon world-disclosing preunderstandings which themselves cannot be scientifically explained—hence the link of his hermeneutics to art. In the early Romantic view, the limits of what can be explained are understood in terms of the way in which the subject's being is always more than it can explain to itself, which leaves it with an endless task of self-exploration via its relations to the world: natural science is therefore only one part of that exploration. The significance of music lies, in this sense, precisely in its meaning being independent of what science can say about it as sound. Rorty has, as we saw, no time either for “subpropositional” modes of articulation or for reflections on self-consciousness, but this surely tries to obviate too much too quickly, giving us no way, for example, of understanding the difference of intentional language use or the playing of music from the mere mechanical production of signifiers and patterned noises. Do reflections on self-consciousness necessarily lead back in the last analysis to the paradigm of representation if the essential issue is not the empiricist problem of how sensations ever get to the point of becoming reliable knowledge, but rather the Romantic problem, which Rorty accepts in its psychoanalytical version, of how to come to terms with the fact that the being of the self is more than it knows?
One of Rorty's most productive ideas in this context is his separation of “projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self-development”: the “paradigm” of the former is natural science, of the latter, “romantic art,” and another “may be” religion. The former demands the kind of communicative consensus which is vital to the functioning of any society—which Apel, Habermas, and others try, in Rorty's opinion unsuccessfully, to elevate into a substitute for earlier forms of transcendental philosophy—the latter is left to the individual, provided they do no harm to others. Gadamer, of course, wishes to use engagement with what Rorty sees in terms of a private search for transcendence in art as a means of revealing the culturally damaging implications of the exclusive concentration on rule-based “method” in the sciences. The dangers in this area are familiar: in its extreme versions the rendering public of the private need for transcendence is precisely what makes Habermas and others so suspicious of what they mean by “Romanticism,” especially in the light of the course of German history. Rorty therefore says that he reads “people like Heidegger and Nietzsche as good private philosophers,” contrasting himself with Habermas who “reads them as bad public philosophers.” This is because they offer resources for the kind of
“Romantic” transcendence which allows one to imagine Utopian possibilities, even though they are useless, or worse, for the “philosophical” task of advancing democracy. Their value lies, then, precisely in the world-disclo-sive element of their thought, not—and Rorty suggests something similar about Gadamer, whom he regards in this respect as sharing a suspect Hei-deggerian nostalgia in relation to the “public” aspect of modernity in their contribution to solving political, economic, and technical problems in the modern world.
Rorty himself seems here to rely on questionable radical dichotomies between two fundamentally different kinds of project, and two different uses of language, of the kind he elsewhere seeks to avoid, though the distinctions are in many ways merely strategic. He claims against Habermas, for example, that what happens in “private” world disclosure can, if it happens to become part of the problem-solving resources of a society, move from one to the other side of the divide, from mere disclosure to the realm of argument about truth based on the consensus of a community. If one accepts this view in the form in which Rorty presents it, Gadamer's desire for an emphatic sense in which great art involves a happening of truth entails the equivalent with regard to art of what Rorty wishes to escape via the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, namely a kind of deeper legitimation that needs to be backed up by a big philosophical story, in this case of the need for something opposed to the idea of “science and technology as something like our historical fate.” On the other hand, if one accepts Rorty's more emphatic formulations, one is left with a questionable schematic distinction between “arguments,” in which “the same vocabulary” must “be used in premises and conclusions” as part of the same “language game,” and “suggestions about how to speak differently.” All the latter can do is “fluidize old vocabularies.” In real language use, of course, this distinction is being transgressed all the time, and it is the spontaneous interpretative capacity of subjects most obviously exemplified in their ability to make sense of art which prevents the confusion that would ensue if Rorty's model were really determining.
Gadamer is actually prone to make an analogous kind of distinction, from the other direction, in order to sustain his story about the difference between rule-bound, objectifying language use in scientific and technical work, and revelatory language which escapes objectification: “Both kinds of discourse, poetic as well as philosophical … share a common trait. They cannot be ‘false.’ For there is no criterion outside them by which they can measure themselves, to which they could correspond” (GW8:23g). This seems to mean that scientific discourse does correspond to the world in itself, as opposed to being seen as a way of making predictions to solve problems. As such, in wishing to avoid the—in any case questionable—idea that all evaluation involves objectification, Gadamer ends up leaving the door
1. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 28. [BACK]
2. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 162. [BACK]
3. See, e.g., Tugendhat's review of Gadamer in Ernst Tugendhat, Philosophische Aufsatze (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1992). [BACK]
4. Rorty terms scientism “the doctrine that natural science is privileged over other areas of culture, that something about natural science puts it in closer—or at least more reliable—touch with reality than any other human activity.” Richard Rorty, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 294. [BACK]
5. John McDowell, Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 72. As will become apparent below, this is essentially a formulation of the problem of the “absolute” as it is seen in early German Romantic philosophy. On this see Andrew Bowie, ‘John McDowell's Mind and World and Early Romantic Epistemology,’ in Revue international dephilosophie, 50.197 (1996): 515-54. [BACK]
6. On this see Manfred Frank, “Unendliche Annaherung”: Die Anfdnge der philoso-phischen Fruhromantik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp), 1997. [BACK]
7. For a much more detailed account, see Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 1997). [BACK]
8. See Dahlhaus, Die Idee der absoluten Musik (Munich: DTV, 1978); and Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche (Manchester: Manchester University Press, new ed. 2003). [BACK]
9. One of Gadamer's aims is to establish a nonrepresentational concept of “mimesis” as the “essence of all constitutive activity in art and literature,” in which “Mimesis is … not so much that something points to something else that is its original image [Urbild], but that something in itself [in sich selbst] is there as something meaningful” (GW8:85). There is nothing incompatible in this with the idea that music can be world-disclosive: neither position assumes that music is essentially the representation of interiority. [BACK]
10. Quoted in Paul Moos, Die Philosophic der Musik von Kant bis Eduard von Hart-mann (New York: Georg Olms, 1975), 27. [BACK]
11. It is questionable, in the light of the hermeneutically influenced postem-piricist history of science, whether this is an adequate view of the practice of science, but it does correspond to a widely held view in the traditions Gadamer refers to. [BACK]
12. See my From Romanticism to Critical Theory for a more differentiated account of Dilthey. [BACK]
13. Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften und Fragmente 1-6 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoningh, 1988), 38. [BACK]
14. Ibid., 48. [BACK]
15. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Sammtliche Werke, ed. K. F. A. Schelling, I Abtheilung vols. 1-10, II Abtheilung vols. 1-4 (Stuttgart, 1856-61), 1/3.627. On this, see Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy (London: Rout-ledge, 1993); and Bowie, Aesthetics. [BACK]
16. Novalis, Band 2: Das philosophische-theoretische Werh, ed. Hans-Joachim Mahl (Munich: Hanser, 1978), 769. [BACK]
17. Ibid., 322. [BACK]
18. Ibid., 840. [BACK]
19. In F. D. E. Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics and Criticism” and Other Texts, ed. and trans. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). [BACK]
20. Ibid., 94. [BACK]
21. See Wolfgang Virmond, Schleiermacher-Archiv, Band I (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1985), 575-90; Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics.” [BACK]
22. Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics,” 94. In the General Hermeneutics of 1809-10 Schleiermacher sees the two sides as follows: “The grammatical side puts the utterer in the background and regards him just as an organ of the language, but regards language as what really generates the utterance. The technical side, on the other hand, regards the utterer as the real-ground of the utterance and the language merely as the negative limiting principle” (ibid., 230). [BACK]
23. Ibid., 257. [BACK]
24. See Bowie, Romanticism, and my Introduction to Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics. “As Frank shows in “Unendliche Anndherung,” the insight into the regress of rules, which Kant already describes (see Bowie, Romanticism,chapter 2), was a commonplace of the post-Kantian thinkers who prepared the way for Romantic thought. [BACK]
25. Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics,” 229. [BACK]
26. Ernest Lepore, ed., Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 446. [BACK]
27. On this see, e.g., Manfred Frank, Das Individuelle-Allgemeine: Textstruhtur-ierungund interpretation nach Schleiermacher (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977); Christian Berner, La philosophie de Schleiermacher (Paris: Cerf, 1995); and Bowie, Romanticism. [BACK]
28. F. D. E. Schleiermacher, Dialehtih, ed. L. Jonas (Berlin: Reimer, 1839), 261. [BACK]
29. See my Introduction to Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics.” [BACK]
30. Martin Heidegger, Zur Sachen des Denkens (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1988), 70. [BACK]
31. Martin Heidegger, Holzwege (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1980), 107. [BACK]
32. Ibid., 105. [BACK]
33. See Frank, Individuelle-Allgemeine; Bowie, Schilling. [BACK]
34. Karl-Otto Apel, Auseinandersetzungen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998), 572-74. [BACK]
35. See Frank, “Unendliche Annaherung,” §*](:>. [BACK]
36. See Dieter Henrich, Der Grand im Bewusstsein: Untersuchungen zu Holderlins Denhen (1794-5) (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1992); Andrew Bowie, “Re-thinking the History of the Subject: Jacobi, Schelling, and Heidegger,” in Deconstructive Subjectivities, ed. Simon Critchely and Peter Dews (New York: SUNYPress, 1996); Frank, “Unendliche Annaherung. “ [BACK]
37. Gadamer sees correspondences between his position and that of Popper (GWa:4). [BACK]
38. See Bowie, “Re-thinking”; Bowie, Romanticism; Frank, “Unendliche Annaherung. “ [BACK]
39. The contemporary counterpart of Fichte in relation to the question of grounding is Karl-Otto Apel, who insists against Albert that a “final foundation” is to be discovered in the fact that if one does not accept an absolute presupposition concerning the possible intersubjective validity of what is being argued about, one would be involved in the “performative self-contradiction” of claiming validity for a position which excludes the possibility of validity. I shall return to some of the less controversial and more productive aspects of Apel's arguments below. [BACK]
40. Fichte's subjectivism has often led him to be regarded as the essential Romantic philosopher. It was Walter Benjamin who first showed why this is an invalid view of Fichte, for reasons similar to those suggested below; on this see Bowie, Romanticism,chapter 8. [BACK]
41. Novalis 162. [BACK]
42. See Manfred Frank, Selbstbewusstsein und Selbsterhenntnis (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1991). [BACK]
43. Dieter Henrich, Fluchtlinien: Philosophische Essays (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), 166. [BACK]
44. F. D. E. Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermachers Dialektih, ed. Rudolf Ode-brecht (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976), 274-75. [BACK]
45. Frank,“UnendlicheAnnaherung,” 717. [BACK]
46. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 196. [BACK]
47. Rorty, Truth and Progress, vol. 1, 2. [BACK]
48. Ibid., 3. [BACK]
49. Novalis 181. [BACK]
50. Ibid. [BACK]
51. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophische Vorlesungen (1800-1807), Kritische Fried-rich Schlegel Ausgabe, vol. 12 (Munich: Ferdinand Schoningh), 95. [BACK]
52. Friedrich Schlegel, Transcendentalphilosophie, ed. Michael Elsasser (Hamburg: Meiner, 1991), 95. [BACK]
53. Novalis 8. [BACK]
54. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophische Lehrjahre II (1798-1828) (Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe, vol. 19) (Munich: Ferdinand Schoningh, 1971), 58. [BACK]
55. Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, 240. [BACK]
56. Rorty, Truth, 38. [BACK]
57. Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 126. [BACK]
58. Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 216. [BACK]
59. Schlegel, Transcendentalphilosophie, 74. [BACK]
60. Ibid., 92-93. [BACK]
61. Schlegel, Vorlesungen, 316-17. [BACK]
62. Schlegel, Transcendentalphilosophie, 92. [BACK]
63. Schleiermacher, Dialektik, 18. [BACK]
64. Apel 92. [BACK]
65. The further complicating factor lies in the fact that representations require linguistic articulation if they are to be agreed on, which gives a further reason why the correspondence model is untenable, at least in its traditional form. [BACK]
66. Schleiermacher, “Hermeneutics,” 274. [BACK]
67. Rorty, Truth, 60-61. [BACK]
68. Indeed, it is arguable that for much of this century most English-speaking philosophy at least was, with respect to these specific issues, not even at the level of the Romantic debate. [BACK]
69. Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” in The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, ed. Morris Dickstein (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 37-46. See also Rorty, Contingency. [BACK]
70. Rorty, Truth, 310. [BACK]
71. Ibid., Truth, 288. [BACK]
72. Cited in ibid. [BACK]
73. Rorty, Essays, 125. [BACK]
74. Ibid., 126. [BACK]
5. Literature, Law, and Morality
Richard Posner lists several reasons to think that morality and law are enterprises distinct from literature: the fact that the heinous actions of German lawyers and citizens in the 1930-5 and 1940-5 coexisted with Germany's status as one of the most cultured nations of the world; the circumstance that one of the well-known abilities of many well-read people is to remain insensitive to the suffering of others; the fact that moral atrocities fill the literary canon without affecting either the aesthetic virtues of the work or its reader's own moral attitudes; and, finally, the distance between the concerns of law and those of literature.
For these reasons Posner is skeptical about what he calls the edifying school in legal scholarship, an approach to the relation of law and literature that claims that the study of literature is crucial to the ability of judges to judge responsibly and sensitively. Alexander Nehamas is equally skeptical about the ability of literature to teach people in general to act morally or to live moral lives. In this chapter I want to show the force of both positions. But I also want to turn to Gadamer's hermeneutics to develop suggestions he makes about the relation between literary criticism on the one hand and moral and legal reflection on the other. I shall argue that these suggestions help redirect our attention away from the solitary reader or critic toward the participant in dialogue. Moreover, I shall argue that the form this participation takes serves to strengthen rather than weaken the relation between literature, law, and morality. I shall begin with Martha Nussbaum's claims for the edifying potential of a particular novel, Henry James's The Golden Bowl, which is the focus of problems both Posner and Nehamas pose for attempts to connect literature, law, and morality.
The Golden Bowl involves the relations between four people: two rich Americans, Maggie and her widowed father Adam; Maggie's husband, a
The novel may be warning readers that it is a mistake for women to make marriage their whole career, that men and women alike should work rather than live off inherited wealth like Maggie and her prince. It may even be presenting a “grim parody” of the marital ideals of nineteenth-century England and America and of the capitalist system in which those ideals are embedded and which they reflect. (Posner 317-18).
If the moral implications of The Golden Bowl are ambiguous, then Posner thinks it is odd to suppose, as Nussbaum does, that reading literature is the only or best way to improve judicial decision making. For his part, Ne-hamas questions not only the limitations of Nussbaum's moralistic reading of James's novel, but also the assumption she appears to make that readers, whether judges or not, can transform that moralistic reading into lessons for their own lives. The problem in doing so, Nehamas thinks, is illuminated by the implications that Nussbaum tries to draw from the scene that describes the ultimate parting of Maggie and her father, a parting both see as the only way to resolve the situation in which all four characters find themselves. What James describes, as Nehamas puts Nussbaum's point, is how Maggie and Adam “loving each other as they do, become capable of letting go without harming one another, without selfishness and without cause for regret.”
For Nussbaum, the importance of this description is the contrast it marks between the abstract moral theories that form the content of moral philosophy and the particular situations to which they must ultimately be applied. Her point, as Nehamas understands it, is that they can only be appropriately applied “when the particular situations to which they are relevant are characterized in the detailed, fine-grained, minuscule manner of which only literary language is capable and to which only sensitive readers are attentive” (Nehamas 35). The conclusion for Nussbaum is that the sensitivity of good readers is necessary for the capacity to act morally because it is part of knowing
Nehamas suggests two ways in which Nussbaum's argument might be understood. According to the first, the moral relevance of The Golden Bowl lies in our capacity to expand our active sense of life to include the exquisite sensibility Maggie and Adam exemplify. The problem here, however, according to Nehamas, is that this capacity seems to require precisely the ability to paraphrase that Nussbaum rejects. We must be able to abstract the main features of plot, character, and reaction from a piece of literature and show their relevance for our own lives. But works of literature are unified wholes, Nehamas insists, unities of meaning in which no details are extraneous. They are not reports of real life but real life ordered around a particular sense of coherence and meaning. As he quotes William Gass, “nothing is simple happenstance, everything has meaning, is part of a net of essential relations. Sheer coincidence is impossible” (Nehamas 37). But if all the details of a novel have meaning only within this net of essential relations, it remains unclear how we are to extract particular moral lessons from out of the net.
The second way in which Nehamas claims we might understand Nussbaum's argument looks to the education in attentiveness and discrimination that reading itself is meant to offer us. According to this argument, the gravest moral problem in both reading and life is an inattentiveness to detail, an insensitivity to others, and an inability either to recognize or avoid the cruelty that such inattentiveness and insensitivity produce. We may not be able directly to transpose the sensibilities and actions of others to our own lives. Still, by becoming good readers, we are supposed to become sensitive to the needs, problems, and points of view of the diverse individuals we meet in literature and, according to Nussbaum, we are thus supposed to be able to become better moral actors in our own lives.
In questioning these suppositions, Nehamas takes up Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the central character of which, Charles Kinbote, is obtuse and largely insensitive as well as terribly inattentive as a reader. The book Pale Fire consists of a poem “Pale Fire,” which was written by a professor at a small college, John Shade, together with a foreword, commentary on the poem, and index supplied by Kinbote after Shade's death. What is striking about the commentary, however, is that it appears to be a complete misappropriation of the poem for Kinbote's own purposes. The poem concerns, in part, the poet's daughter's suicide; Kinbote's commentary sees in it the story of what he suggests is his life, the story of the deposed king of Zembla. Kinbote
Nehamas understands Nabokov's book somewhat differently, however. In the first place, he wonders how deep Shade's pain is. Shade's poem is fair to middling at best, Nehamas thinks, and the suffering it expresses is banal. Shade's life is not particularly altered by his daughter's death. “He continues to work, teach and give dinner and cocktail parties, to lecture and take vacations, to be a regular, lively and witty participant at collegial lunches, to provoke … crushes on the part of beautiful undergraduate students.” Moreover, he never talks to Kinbote very much about his pain, his daughter, or any other matters. Hence, according to Nehamas, Kinbote's supposed “insensitivity to Shade's pain appears to be due at least as much to the fact that Shade's pain is minimal as to his own insane egotism” (Nehamas 43).
In the second place, Kinbote's moral and interpretive deficiencies have literary value, Nehamas thinks. They allow Kinbote largely to ignore Shade's poem and, in appending a mad commentary to it, create a much better book. According to Nehamas, Kinbote is a better writer than Shade; the book he creates of the poem and his commentary is a better piece of literature than the poem alone. But Kinbote can engineer this literary feat only because he is so insensitive to Shade's own meaning. Moreover, Nehamas insists, Kinbote's cruelty here is the cruelty of interpreters in general “who take another person's words, redescribe them in a way that may have nothing to do with what the author consciously meant in the first place and by that means produce a greater work” (Nehamas 44). In this analysis interpretive cruelty, or what Nussbaum might consider inattentive reading, possesses creative merit. Indeed, Nehamas suggests thatjust this merit explains the reference to “pale fire” that in the play Timon of Athens refers to the moon's “arrant” thievery insofar as its light is a reflection of the sun's. It is only because of Kinbote's obtuse commentary that Shade's poem becomes noteworthy and burns with a reflected fire. Obtuse reading, as opposed to the attentive reading Nussbaum emphasizes, turns out to be necessary both for Kinbote's artistry and for the possibility of Shade's posthumous literary life.
But if an interpretive insensitivity can engender good literature, can it also lead to moral action? Nehamas suggests that Kinbote is a better man than Shade precisely because he is so interpretively insensitive. In failing to recognize the numerous ways in which Shade tries to avoid him, in attributing
Of course, Nussbaum can object to this line of argument that her concerns are directed not at the relation of morality to bad readings or misinterpretations of either texts or people, but rather at the relation of morality to good and valid interpretations. Inattentiveness to the feelings of others and the literature they meant to produce may sometimes lead to better literature as well as to actions and attitudes that are generous and forgiving. Her point is that attentive reading always has the capacity to improve our ability to act morally in particular circumstances because it gives us insight into the diversity and details of circumstances beyond our experience. Yet Posner adds to his list of bad actions on the part of good readers with which we began. Sensitivity to and understanding of the needs, problems, and points of view of diverse individuals that literature is meant to give us are also the source of the success of great demagogues “who understand people,” he claims, “all too well” (Posner 316). Moreover, Nehamas notes, an ability to understand others is a moral problem if it means that we can no longer condemn them. “That, at least, was the disturbing argument Bruno Bettleheim made against Robert Jay Lifton's study of the German physicians who worked in concentration camps: understanding them might lead us to forgive them” (Nehamas 50).
There thus appear to be four conclusions to be drawn from Posner's and Nehamas's reflections on Nussbaum's claims for literature, reading, and morality. First, to focus on the moral lessons a piece of literature has to teach us is to subtract from other meanings the work possesses and to ignore the different ways even its moral meaning might be understood. Second, an interpretive sensitivity that allows us to understand the moral grace in the actions of characters in literature such as Maggie and Adam in James's The Golden Bowl does not directly lead to a capacity to act gracefully in the different circumstances in which we find ourselves. Hence, both the moral meaning and the moral consequences of literature remain ambiguous. Third, an interpretive sensitivity can as easily provide the basis for immoral actions as it can for moral ones, for it may provide demagogues with dangerous insights into others and others with the means to forgive and excuse them. Finally, an interpretive insensitivity and the inability to read either texts or others well can lead to a generosity to others that makes better literature out of their efforts and fails to register their personal faults. The idea that literature or interpretive sensitivity is connected in any one or necessary way to morality or judicial insight seems definitively laid to rest.
Nehamas and Posner do not deny that literature can teach us how to live. What both deny, instead, is that insights into the form of a well-lived life translate into either moral or legal insights. What we learn from literature, Nehamas concludes, are models of coherent narrative in terms of which we might shape our own lives in our attempts to give them unity and meaning. Unity and meaning, however, are aesthetic values, not moral ones. In Pos-ner's view, literature helps us understand who we are and even to become who we are. Becoming who we are, however, or enhancing our recognition of ourselves is a question of authenticity, not morality. The self we discover ourselves to be “need not be a moral improvement over the reader's present, less authentic self” (Posner 331). The values involved in the consideration of literature, then, are aesthetic values or the values of an improved authenticity. They are not, however, moral values, nor do they necessarily translate into the values of sound judicial judgment.
In what follows I want to examine the connections between literature, law, and morality once more to see if there is yet another way they might have significance for one another. In order to do so I shall examine Gada-mer's account of the character of interpretive understanding, an account that tries to elucidate the conditions of literary interpretation by considering first, the interpretive or hermeneutic significance of Aristotle's ethics, second, the “exemplary significance of legal hermeneutics,” and third, the moral experience of the “Thou.” All three accounts seem to point to some relation between literary interpretation and the sphere of law and morality. What exactly this relation is meant to be remains the question. I shall begin with what Gadamer sees as the hermeneutic significance of Aristotle's ethics.
Aristotle's concern, as is Nussbaum's, is the application of moral univer-sals to particular circumstances and to the necessity of action: we encounter the question of the good in concrete situations in which some action or response is required of us. Importantly, when we know how to act or respond, the knowledge we have is not, for Aristotle, an objective knowledge or the knowledge that an observer has of necessary or constant relations between objects. It is rather a practical knowledge of what we are to do in a specific situation with its specific characteristics.
What sort of knowledge is this? Gadamer emphasizes the difference between a practical knowledge and technical or instrumental one. Whereas the latter allows for a straightforward derivation of the proper action from the result one wants to obtain, a practical knowledge of which action is morally appropriate in a particular circumstance circumscribes both means and ends. In the first place, the end, the good, is not separate from the action or means that leads to it. Rather, the good of the end depends, in large measure, on the actions through which it is realized. The success that Maggie attains by the end of The Golden Bowl is not just that she has warded off a
In the second place, if means and end are interrelated in moral deliberation, so that we cannot simply specify some end and look for the most efficient means to it, neither can we simply learn a series of moral virtues and principles and then apply them to particular situations. Knowing how to act, according to Gadamer's interpretation of Aristotle, is not a question of learning a skill and performing it when asked to do so. Rather, moral knowledge encompasses both a training or education in proper principles and virtues as well as an adequate understanding of the particular situation in which we are required to behave morally. In order to act morally, we must already understand the situation in a way that sees the relevance of the moral virtues and principles we are to apply to it. Part of Maggie's understanding of the particular situation in which she finds herself is that it imposes a moral requirement on her to act in such a way as to injure no one while resolving the situation. To this extent, her understanding of the situation is inextricable from her understanding of the relevant moral principles and virtues. On the one hand, then, her understanding of the virtues and principles she seeks to realize is an understanding constituted by the circumstances in which she finds herself. These provide the horizon from which the meaning of those virtues and principles is illuminated for her and, to this extent, her understanding of the principles and virtues at stake is already an applied understanding. On the other hand, it is significant for Gadamer that she also understands the situation in terms of moral principles and virtues, as a situation requiring of her a heightened sensitivity. This understanding presupposes that she is oriented toward the situation by a conception of tact and generosity she already holds. Hence, just as her understanding of the situation in which she finds herself offers her a particular perspective on the virtues and principles she takes seriously, her understanding of the situation is itself oriented by her initial projection of it as one requiring particular virtues and falling under the province of certain principles.
The relevance of this analysis of practical knowledge of the good transfers, Gadamer thinks, to legal hermeneutics. Here again, just as we can understand the good only through the means we take toward achieving it, we need to apply to a particular case a law the meaning of which we do not understand independently of the case itself. And just as we do not understand what action to take independently of our previous understanding of the good, we do not understand the case independently of the law as it has been
Gadamer insists that this relation between meaning and application entails that judicial review and legal history do not radically diverge. The meaning of the due process clause is a historical one. It has been understood in specific ways in the past because of specific cases and the issues they raised. This historically and interpretively constituted clause is the one that we possess as part of our constitutional tradition and it is therefore the one through which we understand new cases and the one on which those new cases shed new light. What a law means is thus constituted by the history of its application, the way that history orients us toward the present situations to which we now apply it, and the way our present situation orients us toward the meaning we inherit.
Significantly, Gadamer thinks that the same relation holds of the understanding of literature. We understand the texts with which we are concerned from the vantage point of our lives. No more than the due process clause does a work of literature hold a meaning apart from the way it holds meaning for an interpreter who comes to the work or the law from within a particular social, cultural, and historical context with particular concerns and issues. Further, as in legal hermeneutics, the work that an interpreter seeks to understand is a work that has already been understood from within particular social, cultural, and historical contexts and has been conceived of in terms of particular concerns and issues. The work the interpreter confronts is, to this extent, a work as it has been handed down to the interpreter
This relation between a historically situated interpreter, the perspective or “horizon” which that historical situation lends to a work of literature, and the work itself as it appears in a historically developed literary tradition is only one side of the overall interpretive situation, according to Gadamer's analysis. For if an interpreter must understand a work of literature from the horizon constituted by a particular, historical, cultural, and social situation, he or she also understands that very situation in terms informed by the work. If I am to understand it at all, in other words, I must understand the way in which it addresses me and requires a response from me. The issues and concerns it raises are issues and concerns I must take seriously if I am to understand it. If I am to understand that and why Maggie commits herself so completely to marriage, fidelity, and friendship, I must take these values and institutions seriously and consider their limits and extent. Moreover, I must examine my own assumptions about their place in my life; indeed, in asking why Maggie acts as she does, I consider why I act as I do and what I might do in her place. The point here is that in reading a work of literature I apply it to my life and circumstances to no less an extent than in trying to understand a law or moral principle: I ask what it requires of me in the situation in which I find myself. For Gadamer, this dimension of textual understanding means that all understanding is situated, not only in the sense that we always understand from a particular perspective, but also in the sense that we always understand for a particular situation. As he puts the point, the reader does not exist “who, when he has his text before him, simply reads what is there. Rather, all reading involves application, so that a person reading a text is himself part of the meaning he apprehends. He belongs to the text that he is reading” (TM34o). When we read The Golden Bowl our understanding of it is one that includes our lives as part of its meaning. We have a certain orientation toward the text because of those lives and because of the cultures and traditions to which they belong. Similarly, what we understand of The Golden Bowl provides us with a perspective on those lives, one that can reconcile us to aspects of them or reveal to us assumptions and expectations we did not know we had and require us to change.
The conclusion of Gadamer's analysis, then, is that the understanding of literature is a form of practical knowledge just as moral and legal knowledge are. Reading and literary criticism are not related to morality or law in the
It is not clear that either Posner or Nehamas would necessarily reject this analysis since neither denies that literature can have a practical effect on our lives. Nehamas claims that we can look to literature for exemplars of how to shape and create well-formed human lives, while Posner argues that literature can aid in our attempts to discover who we authentically are and would like to be. What we create or discover, however, need not be specifically moral and need not have any relevance to the abilities of judges to render sound judgments. The literature we read is rather practical in the sense that it can change the way we view ourselves and even motivate us to restructure our lives. Gadamer adds to this conception of the way literature can affect us a recognition of the impact of our lives on the literature we understand. We come to works of literature from the horizon of our lives; we bring to those works certain questions and issues, whether we have articulated them explicitly or not, and the answers we find in literature are answers to our questions, just as the questions literature asks of us are questions we apply to our lives. Gadamer thus sees the interpretation of works of literature as a dialogue in which both work and interpreter must raise and answer questions they address to one another. This structural homology to our relations to law and moral principle, however, does not mean that works of literature can be understood as themselves laws or moral principles for us.
Yet Gadamer's suggestions for the relation between morality, law, and literature go further. If literary interpretation is a form of practical as opposed to specifically moral or judicial knowledge, it nonetheless has what seems to be a moral condition. The understanding of a text is a kind of knowing how to reveal its meaning for a particular situation and arises from a particular situated perspective. But this relation between the universal, which is the text for Gadamer, and the particular situations to which it is applied and in
Nehamas, of course, thinks that most good interpretation does involve this sort of opportunistic and even cruel relation to works of literature. Gada-mer, as well, thinks that all understanding is prejudiced insofar as it is circumscribed by the light a particular history and historical situation sheds on that which an interpreter is trying to understand. Indeed, he argues that prejudices are the condition for the possibility of any understanding since they provide the framework only within which we can first appropriate or try to grasp the meaning of that which we are trying to understand. We are situated in particular histories, cultures, and circumstances, and these necessarily provide any orientation we have toward that which we are trying to understand. We can understand a certain text as a novel, for example, because we belong to a history and culture that knows what a novel is. We can understand the meaning of a particular novel because we project tentative determinations of meaning on the whole as we begin to read its initial parts. Without such projections we have no context for beginning to appropriate or understand the text, and by calling these preliminary projections prejudices Gadamer points to their relation to the historical situation from which they emerge. Prejudices or projections are not simply subjective or personal understandings of meaning. Rather, they indicate the degree to which our interpretations of meaning are grounded in the expectations we acquire from our history and situation and from the interpretations of the texts we are trying to understand that have been handed down to us as part of the culture and tradition to which we belong.
Still, for Gadamer, this structure of understanding describes only its initial condition, not its task. For if all understanding is prejudiced, we must, he thinks, nonetheless distinguish between those prejudiced and situated understandings that are simply opportunistic in that they impose a meaning and relevance on a work of literature for the present purposes of the interpreter and those understandings that genuinely do serve to illuminate
That this acknowledgment of the autonomy of the text constitutes a specifically moral form of experience for Gadamer is implied by his account of what he calls the moral experience of the Thou, an experience he thinks has its counterpart in the hermeneutical experience of literature. There are, he argues, three forms in which we might experience the Thou. The first is a kind of objectifying experience in which we understand the other person as a means to our ends. Our concern is to be able to explain and predict his or her behavior so that we might more efficiently achieve our own goals. Such objectification, which is necessary to game theory and rational choice models of ethics and politics, Gadamer calls a contradiction of the “moral definition of man” and purely “self-regarding.” Referring to Kant, he continues, “the other should never be used as a means but always as an end in himself” (TM358).
Gadamer thinks that the equivalent in the attempt to understand texts is a naive faith in our ability to extract ourselves from the horizon or prejudices through which we understand texts and to reduce them to objects. In this way, we attempt to understand them as if the meaning they had possessed no relation to who and what we understand ourselves and our experience to be. We understand them, instead, objectively, from no particular point of view. If interpretation involves a form of practical reason, however, this idea that we could achieve an objective understanding of a text or that the meaning of the text betrayed no relation to our own situation remains mythological. More importantly, in supposing the objectivity of our understanding we allow our prejudices to prevail without constraints. We make the text into an object for our own use because we assume that we have no
The second way of experiencing the Thou is equally self-regarding, Gadamer thinks, but it is self-regarding not because it uses the other for one's own purposes but because it assimilates the other to oneself. This experience of the Thou presumes to understand the other better than he or she understands him or herself, a presumption Gadamer associates with welfare work but that also seems to be at the root of Kinbote's relation to Shade in Pale Fire. In this case, “by understanding the other, by claiming to know him, one robs his claims of their legitimacy” (TM360). The fallacy here, Gadamer suggests, is the idea that one can dispense with the tension between distance and closeness in a human relationship and simply experience the other as one experiences oneself.
The equivalent to this experience of the Thou in textual understanding Gadamer calls historical consciousness. Once again, the presumption is that one can extract oneself from one's own situation and hence from the temporal relation between that situation and the situation of the text. One assumes that one can understand the text, not objectively, not now from no particular point of view as in the first relation to texts, but rather in the exact way that the author or his or her original audience understood it. But in making this presumption one simply substitutes one's present understanding for the original understanding of the author or his or her first audience. Again, one allows one's prejudices to prevail unchecked because one simply takes them for the original meaning of the text itself. If understanding is practical in the sense that it is always for and from a particular perspective, however, a historical consciousness or empathetic account of understanding misses what Gadamer considers the essential point about understanding: that it is both historically situated and capable of disclosing autonomous meaning.
The third way of experiencing the Thou, according to Gadamer, is the moral experience of the Thou in which one allows “him really to say something to us.” In this moral relationship we neither objectify the other nor claim to speak for him or her. We are rather engaged in a dialogic relation in which we are open to the other as someone who has his or her own autonomy and own claims. This relationship differs from the objectifying social scientific situation in which the scientist is to understand his or her object by learning how to predict his or her behavior. It also differs from the empathetic situation in which the empathizers deny any confinement to their own situated horizons and claim to understand the object as well or better than he or she understands him or herself. Rather, the relationship is one between two subjects who understand each other by orienting themselves to the independent claims each makes.
To see the experience of literature in the same terms is to emphasize the
Gadamer's point is a methodological one to the extent that it answers the question of how we are to construct valid interpretations of literary texts given that we are prejudiced and can understand them only from a situated point of view. The answer he gives is that we must assume that they are potentially other than what we suppose them to be and, in making this assumption, create a space in which their claims can be voiced. But Gadamer's point is also a moral one to the extent that it suggests that respect for difference is fundamental to the ability to treat people as ends rather than simply as means. In other words, treating other people as ends involves allowing their voice and their claims to their own autonomy, neither speaking for them nor reducing their claims to elements of a verbal behavior to be causally explained. To this extent, morality and literature make the same demand: that of allowing others to be and to express themselves. Rather than reducing them to either objects or ourselves, we must take them as independent beings against whose claim we can check our own prejudices and understanding. Our attempts to act morally and to understand texts require the same assumption: that others are autonomous of our ends and our ideas and must be given the space to speak their own claims.
Gadamer suggests that the same holds of the law. We cannot understand particular laws opportunistically, imposing our own purposes on them, if we are to come to a genuine understanding of them. Nor can we presume to understand them empathetically, as we think the framers of the particular laws themselves understood or intended them. Theories of legal interpretation that look to original intent mirror theories of literary criticism that equate understanding with empathy. The presumption in both cases is that one can extract oneself from one's own historical situation, with its contemporary concerns and the frameworks of interpretation it has developed, to understand the law or the literary text the way its authors or its original audience understood it. But in making this presumption, interpreters must presume a set of other conditions as well: that the authors of the law knew and understood all of their intentions with regard to it so that what they claim to have been their intentions can be taken to really accord with them; that the various contributors to the final formulation of a law, act, or constitutional
For Americans, the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Pkssy v. Ferguson remains a prime example of just such an opportunistic and falsely inten-tionalistic reading of both the Fourteenth Amendment and alternative interpretations of it. Moreover, the decision seems to confirm the suggestions Gadamer makes about the links between moral, legal, and literary knowledge. Plessy, as is well known, upheld a Louisiana law providing for separate accommodations for blacks and whites in railway cars. Although the black community protested, the Supreme Court (with Justice Harlan dissenting) claimed that “in the nature of things” the equal protection clause “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” It added that if African Americans thought that separation stamped them with a “badge of inferiority,” this badge was issued not “by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment makes no mention of a distinction between social and political equality; nor is it clear what the nature of things is meant to be or how it shows what the intentions of the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment were. By claiming to know what these intentions were, the Supreme Court simply allows its own prejudices to hold sway. By dismissing “the colored race's” interpretation of the act as a construction they “choose” to put on it, the Court also dismisses the autonomy of African Americans and the difference their interpretations reflect. But the Court's failure here is not one only in legal interpretation or in the interpretation of texts. It is also manifestly a moral one. If the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education began to correct this moral, legal, and interpretive failure, it did so in part, at least, because it restored dignity and independence to both the meaning of the amendment and the understanding African Americans had of it.
If we are to follow Gadamer's suggestions, Brown is a better decision than Plessy in moral, legal, and interpretive terms not because it is an unprejudiced one. Brown understands both the Fourteenth Amendment and black interpretations of the doctrine of “separate but equal” from a perspective
Still, we might ask how we are meant to realize this demand. We cannot suspend our prejudices or interpretive frameworks in order to create the space in which others can speak their independent claims. We can create it only by assuming that we are prejudiced and that what we are trying to understand or what is trying to speak to us is potentially different from those prejudices. To respect the otherness of a text, law, or the claims of others is thus to respect its possible difference from what we think we already know. But, Gadamer suggests, to assume that the meaning of a text differs from what we already know is to suppose that in understanding this meaning we can learn something. To this extent, genuine understanding requires that we approach texts, laws, and the interpretations of others with a respect not only for their otherness but also for their possible superiority in knowledge. We read, examine a law, or listen to others because we are interested in what they perhaps know that we do not.
The foundation here is what Gadamer calls the docta ignorantia or the So-cratic wisdom of knowing that one does not know (TM362). If we are situated in our historical horizons and if we are therefore prejudiced, but if we also want to create the space in which others can speak and in which we can listen, then we must assume that those others can say something new, something beyond what we already know. We cannot dismiss what they say in advance unless we are willing to be content with the prejudices we already have. And if we do want to learn, we must assume that what they say is at least potentially true. As Gadamer writes, “And just as we believe the news reported by a correspondent because he was present or is better informed,
This move from otherness to superiority appears to raise a problem, however. Understanding in the context of either morality, law, or literature may require a respect for difference, and a respect for difference may require that we acknowledge the possible superiority of the claims we are trying to understand. But, if so, does respect not threaten to become deference? Suppose African Americans had deferred to the supposed superiority of the claims of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Suppose they had tried to learn from it in the way Gadamer intimates and had even used it as a guide to rethink what they thought they knew about the principle of equality and conceptions of dignity? The concern here is that if respect for the superiority of a text or claim is a condition of understanding it, we may accord a dignity to texts, laws, and interpretations of principle that do not deserve it and learn from texts, laws, and interpretations from which we should not. Furthermore, we may overlook the extent to which their claims are ideological or pathological. To respect even the ideological content of a text or principle is to ignore what we know in deference to it and even, it would seem, if interpretation is indeed a form of practical knowledge, to pervert our own relation to ourselves.
Moreover, is it not possible to respect others by not taking their claims at face value, by realizing that the claims they raise are not those they would raise if they were behaving well or thinking at their best? This suggestion is the one Nehamas makes about Kinbote: in depriving Shade of his own voice, in assuming that he knows how to speak for him and knows his actual goodness despite his actions, Kinbote is able to make Shade into a better poet and a better man. From a Gadamerian point of view, however, it would seem that we are moral people and good interpreters not when we speak for others, even when doing so makes them into people better than they are, but when we allow them their autonomous being and meaning, whatever that may be.
A Gadamerian response to the first question of whether we might not defer to ideological claims in our efforts to respect difference and possible legitimacy looks, I think, to the distinction between accepting the claims of others and respecting them as possible paths to understanding the issues involved. We must inspect the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, for example, in terms of the possible knowledge or legitimacy contained in its account of both the equal protection clause and black Americans' account of the meaning of segregation. But to do so is not to defer ultimately to its prejudices. Rather, it is to set that “knowledge” against our own reading of the case. From a Gadamerian point of view, it is precisely by trying to see the legitimacy of Plessy, by trying to understand the truth of what it means by the nature of
Gadamer's insistence that we approach a text, law, or interpretation of a practice or principle with a prejudice in its favor, a presumption that what it says could be true or valid, is meant to provide a check against the unex-amined reign of our own prejudices. He does not insist that the presumption must work out. Rather, a presumption in favor of the truth of what we are trying to understand illuminates our own prejudices and therefore grants us the possibility of confirming or rejecting those prejudices against those of that which we are trying to understand. To approach a text or claim with the idea that one might learn from it is not to set aside one's own prejudices but to illuminate them, and it allows one to test the two conceptions, our own understanding and the one that we are trying to understand, against one another.
Still, this analysis may not be sufficient to overcome the problem, for it presupposes that the 1896 Supreme Court is simply prejudiced as opposed to ideologically motivated. Moreover, it supposes that although we ourselves are prejudiced, we are not ideologically motivated. But suppose the two interpretations that are supposedly illuminating one another are equally ideological? Suppose our understanding is such that we can accept Plessy v. Ferguson and require state governments simply to comply with it and to establish equal facilities for blacks. Such facilities might go beyond the law school Texas set up for blacks in a basement a few blocks from the regular University of Texas law school, and they might even require that black elementary school children be admitted into white schools until substan-tively equal facilities could be built for them. But if this understanding of Plessy were to replace an older one allowing for unequal facilities or tying the existence of any facilities at all to the number of blacks actively seeking them, it would be no less ideological an understanding. What can prevent or correct an endless spinning out of claims that are not simply situated accounts with their own vocabulary of understanding but are instead ideological accounts with a distorted vocabulary?
For Jurgen Habermas this possibility is similar to the case of pathologically distorted vocabularies with which mental health patients try sincerely to understand themselves and their lives. The problem here is that the language through which they try to understand is itself confused by the very set of problems they are trying to solve. The problems trace back to an original trauma, the language for which the patient has repressed and for which he or she has also found substitutes in the form of symptoms. Clarity and understanding thus require a wholly reconstructed language. The same might be said for racism. If one approaches Plessy or the Fourteenth Amendment
Gadamer does not deny the gravity of this sort of problem, but he does deny that the recourse to social theory that Habermas suggests can resolve it since any social theory will itself be subject to the hermeneutic conditions of prejudice and a horizontally circumscribed understanding. Rather, Gadamer looks to what he calls the productivity of temporal distance. Time allows the prejudices that blind understanding to fall away and the prejudices that support it to emerge. “It not only lets local and limited prejudices die away, but allows those that bring about genuine understanding to emerge clearly as such” (TMsgS). This analysis can be only cold comfort when we remember the generations of schoolchildren who had to wait while our prejudices adjusted themselves. Nor did our prejudices do so on their own. That the United States was able finally to rethink Plessy v. Ferguson owes its good fortune, in part at least, to the struggles of African Americans and their allies from the moment the decision was reached. But Gadamer does not think either understanding or morality progresses in any other way. Certainly he does not think there are any guarantees in the social theory to which Habermas appeals. Rather, he thinks that morality, law, and literature are texts that we must constantly rethink in new situations and in the light of new understandings. We have to struggle over our texts; we must disagree, argue, and look for answers to our questions, answers that we all, or most of us, find compelling.
What about the second problem we noted earlier? Surely, it is a moral virtue to be good-hearted, to look past a person's failures in judgment or action and to understand him or her as he or she could be. And surely we appreciate those who see us as we could be if we were better people, rather than as we are. Gadamer does not address this problem explicitly as he does the issue of ideology. Still, it would seem that from a Gadamerian point of view, this rose-colored relation to others is as dogmatic as one that sees only their failures. If others understand us only as they want to understand us or are used to understanding us, then, whether their orientation in doing so renders us better or worse than we are, they fail to respect our autonomy. They fail to allow us to differ from who they take us to be and hence fail to respect who we are. Respect for our difference, however, may be the basic moral virtue we are owed, and respect for their difference may be the basic moral virtue we owe others. Certainly it is a fundamental feature of struggles for recognition by women and minorities. Women struggled, in part, against an ideologically motivated enhancement of their goodness, as creatures too pure and gentle to engage in competitive careers or dirty politics. African Americans struggled against an equally ideological denigration of
What do these Gadamerian considerations mean for the conclusions that Nehamas and Posner reach about claims for the relation of literature, law, and morality? First, to focus on the moral lessons a piece of literature has to teach us may be to subtract from other meanings the work possesses and to ignore the different ways even its moral meaning might be understood. Yet if we always understand from a situated horizon, to understand a piece of literature as a moral lesson may be as legitimate as other ways of understanding it. Second, an interpretive sensitivity that allows us to understand the moral grace in the actions of characters in literature such as Maggie and Adam in James's The Golden Bowl may not directly lead to a capacity to act or judge gracefully in the different circumstances in which we find ourselves. Still, if understandings of moral principle and virtue as well as of law and literature are all forms of practical knowledge, they all reflect an ability to apply universals to particular situations in ways that illuminate and develop the meaning of both. Third, an interpretive sensitivity may as easily provide the basis for immoral actions as it does for moral ones, but a moral acknowledgment of the autonomy of others, including texts, laws, and the interpretations of others of them, remains a condition for adequate interpretation. Finally, an interpretive insensitivity and the inability to read either texts or others well may lead to a generosity to them that makes better literature out of their efforts and better people out of their characters. It may also lead to a lack of generosity that makes worse literature out of their efforts and worse people out of their characters. Neither a blind generosity toward others nor a lack of sufficient generosity seems to have the moral weight of another virtue, however: that of a respect for difference. This respect includes an appreciation of the autonomy of others, a recognition of the possible independence of their claims from one's own prejudices, a willingness to learn from them even if this willingness bears no fruit, and an acknowledgment of their possible difference from oneself and from
1. See “The Edifying School of Legal Scholarship,” in Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988, 1998), 304-44. [BACK]
2. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Form and Content: Philosophy and Literature,” in Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). [BACK]
3. Alexander Nehamas, “What Should We Expect from Reading? (There Are Only Aesthetic Values),” Salmagundi 111 (Summer 1996): 35. [BACK]
4. See Plessy v Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537(1896). See also Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 73-83. [BACK]
5. See “The Hermeneutic Claim to Universality,” in Contemporary Hermeneutics: Method, Philosophy and Critique, ed. Josef Bleicher (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980). [BACK]
6. A Critique of Gadamer's Aesthetics
There are three main critiques through which Hans-Georg Gadamer develops his conception of aesthetics, which has a central role in his philosophical hermeneutics, which in turn is his principal contribution to philosophy in the twentieth century, all of which he amazingly witnessed. He offers a critique of the philosophy of art which regards art as a lie and that denies it is capable of making truth claims; a critique of aesthetic consciousness as an alienated abstraction from the experience of truth in art; and a critique of the subjectivization of modern aesthetics, which he traces back to Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment. These three critiques are integrally linked in Gadamer's work; for he thinks that the subjectivization of aesthetics is the conceptual twin of aesthetic consciousness, and that it is only from the perspective of subjective consciousness that art is unable to have any truth. These are powerful critiques and Gadamer makes strong arguments for each of them, as well as for their connectedness. Nevertheless, I would like to try to decouple and challenge these critiques separately. Specifically, I would like to defend Gadamer's critique of any philosophy of art that considers art to be a lie, though without conceding that art makes truth claims of its own; to challenge his critique of aesthetic consciousness because it reinforces rather than overcomes a fissure between consciousness and experience; and, finally, to resist his critique of the subjectivization of aesthetics because aesthetics, as well as art, is undeniably and unprob-lematically subjective, as is Gadamer's own aesthetics, or so I shall argue. I begin with the critique of truth since it concerns the ontology of art, which serves as the normative basis of the other two critiques.
ART AND TRUTH
Gadamer makes a very strong and unequivocal claim about the role of truth in art: “The fact that through a work of art a truth is experienced that we
The truth issue in Gadamer's aesthetics arises with his discussion of Plato's well-known critique of the poets, in Book X of the Republic, that a work of art is an imitation of an imitation of the truth. A picture of a bed, for example, is a mere appearance of a bed made by a carpenter, which in turn is an appearance of the Form of the bed, which is the one and only true bed. So the truth about art, for Plato, is that it is ontologically incapable of truth. Because art is unaware of this limitation, it continues to lay false claims to truth. In short, art is a lie. Gadamer rightfully challenges this ontology of art by arguing that a work of art is not to be understood in terms of its relationship to any other thing: “in the realm of art above all, it is self-evident that the work of art is not experienced in its own right if it is only acknowledged as a link in a chain that leads elsewhere”; we are compelled, he adds, “to dwell upon the individual appearance itself” (RBiG). A work is still an appearance, but it is not the appearance (/anything other than itself; it presents itself. Art qua appearance, and in the mode of self-presentation that distinguishes it, is its own truth.
Gadamer makes these points more concretely in Truth and Method while discussing how a picture is ontologically distinct from a mirror image and a copy, two things with which Plato and many philosophers after him mistakenly associate it. A mirror image is dependent for its being and truth on the thing, such as my own face, that it mirrors; take my face (or the mirror) away and the image disappears as well. So long as the image remains, its truth is understood in terms of the thing it mirrors, so much so that the image is self-effacing; it reflects my face more or less adequately, and such adequation determines the truth of the image. A copy of something, such as a photocopy of this page, is initially dependent for its being on the original page but, once it exists, it attains a relatively independent being: for somebody could just as easily read a photocopy of this page as the original. Yet despite the copy's ontological independence, its truth is still a function of how adequate it is relative to the original page; for a good photocopy is also self-effacing, while a poor one can obscure the content and truth of the original.
I think the starting point of Gadamer's ontology of a picture—and, by extension, the ontology of art as a whole—is correct, but I think he draws an unwarranted conclusion from it. He concludes from the truth about the ontology of art that art itself has truth content. He would assert, for example, not only that the being of a work of art is autonomous, but also that a work has truth content beyond what it may reveal to us about art. But what is this content, and how do we recognize it? This second question is particularly problematic for Gadamer, I believe, because he can appeal only to the experience of a work of art in which a truth is allegedly disclosed to confirm that a truth has in fact been disclosed. Gadamer acknowledges and, in fact, underscores this point when, in the quote at the start of this section, he says that the claim that truth is experienced in art asserts itself against any and all who would deny that there is truth in art; the truth experienced in art is thus self-evident. What is self-evident, however, is only that truth is experienced; the actual truth experienced is anything but self-evident: “The experience of art acknowledges that it cannot present the full truth of what it experiences in terms of definitive [that is, conceptual] knowledge” (TMioo). For more detail on this truth, even the truth about art itself, we have to turn from experience to aesthetics, whose task it is “to legitimate the experience of truth that occurs in the experience of art itself.” This suggests that aesthetics provides us with definitive knowledge of the truth experienced in art, which means the certainty that some truth has been experienced depends ultimately on aesthetics. For how can we be sure that truth has been experienced if we do not have a definitive sense of the truth that has been experienced? If aesthetics provides the certainty here, however, then the truth in art is hardly self-evident.
This is a result Gadamer would presumably not accept, as the cornerstone of his aesthetics seems to be the self-evidence of our experience of truth in art. If we look more closely at what he means by truth, however, it
The common thread running through all these senses of “truth” is that something shows itself as what it is (self-presentation); for, according to Gadamer, we say of whatever shows itself as it is that it is “true” (RBioS). The meaning of ‘true’ here is “unconcealed.” Applied to art, it means that the truth about art is that it discloses itself qua appearance. If that is the case, however, then I repeat my point that this is a truth about art, not a truth that art discloses about something other than itself. Moreover, Gadamer does not need the second point to make the first; in fact, as we shall see, the second only weakens the first by putting more cognitive pressure on art than it can bear.
Perhaps it would be best, for art, to take it out of the truth game entirely
There is yet another option here, however, besides dropping truth altogether: instead of saying that the experience of truth in art is self-evident, say only that the truth that art is autonomous is self-evident, though only in a historical context, as Gadamer himself argues. Beyond that, we could say not that art makes truth claims but that it introduces candidates for truth claims. The notion of “candidates” can readily, if indirectly, be linked to several of Gadamer's own ideas. First, the notion of truth as openness or unconcealment allows for the disclosure of possible truths in art without requiring that art itself make any truth claims. Second, Gadamer's idea of pre-understanding also opens art up to the realm of truth without implying that any truth claims are actually made by art. He says, “prior to all conceptual-scientific knowledge of the world, the way in which we look upon the world, and upon our whole being-in-the-world, takes shape in art” (RBi64). Although the meaning or content of art provides us with a pre-understanding of the world, it is up to aesthetics—or perhaps science—to validate the specific truths (not the fact) of this pre-understanding. As Gadamer says, truth is ultimately guaranteed by “a discipline of questioning
This alternative position about truth in relation to art is clearly different from Gadamer's, but I believe that it is consistent with many of his principal aims, for it allows him to argue that art is cognitive, even if it does not make any truth claims of its own. Evidence of art's cognitive status, for Gadamer, is its central role in human self-understanding, of which he gives a very good account in Truth and Method and subsequent writings. All cognition is recognition, and recognition is ultimately seZ/-recognition, albeit through the mediation of something other than the self (RBgS-ioo). So to say that art is cognitive is to say that it is part of the process of human self-recognition (knowledge, understanding). In Gadamer's words, art imposes “an ineluctable task on existence, namely, to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence” (TMgG). We come to self-understanding by understanding something other than ourselves, such as a work of art: “Since we meet the artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it” (TMgy). Art is thus cog-nitively important because of its contribution to human self-understanding. Here, too, art's cognitive contribution is confined to introducing us to candidates for truth—about the world as well as ourselves, since self-understanding is mediated by our experience of the world. Now, if the restoration of this cognitive role is the aim in claiming that art has truth content, as I believe it is, it could be achieved without the further argument about truth claims made by art.
Of course, since truth serves as the normative basis of Gadamer's aesthetics, to challenge truth is to challenge this basis. Yet his discussion of truth in art could be reframed, I think, as a discussion of the normativity of art, and in two senses: first, the normativity of art itself, principally with respect to its autonomy and subjectivity; and second, the normativity of what is revealed through art, namely, the self-understanding and pre-understandingjust discussed. Gadamer himself suggests in Truth and Method that normativity is his concern when he criticizes Kant and others for eliminating the normative validity of four humanistic and aesthetic concepts: Bil-dung, taste, sensus communis, and judgment (TMg-4i). I believe their normativity
But, again, Gadamer could speak here of the truth about art—namely, that it has a cognitive role because we can gain certain insights from it via Bildung, sensus communis, judgment, and taste which we cannot get from science—without claiming that art makes truths claims. For being open to the past and to other points of view is an attitude, not a truth claim (even when what we are open to is a truth); sensus communis is later integrated by Gadamer into the notion of tradition where normativity could replace truth; Kant's notion of reflective judgment already captures Gadamer's point aboutjudgment and it does so without invoking truth; and since taste is a sensibility, the truth of what it senses is not something taste can be expected to verify. To propose that Gadamer dispense with the concept of truth in his critique of these humanistic concepts is thus not to deny that art is a rich source of insights about many things; on the contrary, it is to allow art to continue to be such a source without having too many cognitive demands placed on it, demands that arise when truth claims are raised and require verification, something that art cannot possibly provide, as Gadamer himself acknowledges.
The suggestion that Gadamer dispense with the concept of truth in art (though only after he establishes the truth (s) about art) will seemingly cause a major shift in what it means to understand a work of art, since the task of aesthetics on his account, as we have already noted, is to legitimate the truths experienced in art. But aesthetics still has plenty to do without truth, namely, the articulation and critical analysis of the truth candidates introduced by art, along with the self-knowledge and pre-understanding of the world achieved through art. Moreover, aesthetics is also still accountable for the ontology of art, which alone is a major task: for to establish that art is not a lie, to clarify the status of art as appearance, and to show what implications
The purpose of Gadamer's critique of aesthetic consciousness is “to do justice to the experience (Erfahrung) of art” as an experience of truth (TMioo). So this critique is clearly linked to the truth question just discussed. At the same time, however, the two critiques can and, I think, must be separated, especially if I am right that a significant step in Gadamer's truth critique is unconvincing and unnecessary. The claim about truth as the content of art is not needed to make Gadamer's case against aesthetic consciousness, which is, in short, that it abstracts from what makes art possible. Although I agree in part with this analysis, I think the alienation of aesthetic consciousness, as Gadamer describes it, is not due to the fact that aesthetics is subjective; rather, it is due to the wrong conception of subjectivity, which I shall discuss in the final section. Moreover, such alienation can be overcome without giving up aesthetic consciousness, for all that is needed here is for art to be understood as being capable of having nonaesthetic content. Gadamer's critique of aesthetic consciousness is part of his critique of Kant, and involves the philosophical consequences of the autonomy of aesthetics as well as of art. According to Gadamer, Kant's “main concern … was to give aesthetics an autonomous basis freed from the criterion of the concept, and … to base aesthetic judgment on the subjective a priori of our feeling of life, the harmony of our capacity for ‘knowledge in general’” (TM5g-6o). Kant thus grounded aesthetics in a priori subjectivity in order to secure the autonomy of aesthetics (not of art, which had already been secured, at least in principle). Although Gadamer agrees with Kant that aesthetics should be “freed from the criteria of the concept,” he regards the subjective turn in aesthetics which Kant formalized as an unfortunate event for the ontology of art. Although art “becomes a standpoint of its own and establishes its own autonomous claim to supremacy,” it is now “contrasted with practical reality and understood in terms of this contrast”; that is, “the concept of art is defined as appearance in contrast to reality.” Moreover, there is a profound irony in art's autonomy, according to Gadamer, for once art qua appearance becomes autonomous from reality and is seemingly related only to itself, it continues to be defined by the very reality from which it won its autonomy, at least so long as appearance is defined as such only in opposition to reality—as it was for Plato and Kant. If it is defined in this way, autonomous art has no truth. At the same time, it has no efficacy in the world and is thus alienated from reality (even as it is defined by it); its only
According to Gadamer, this alienated conception of art is the product of aesthetic consciousness, which itself is the effect of the autonomy of art; that is, aesthetics becomes autonomous after art does, but then aesthetics (too) is alienated, and its conception of art reflects this alienation. To overcome such alienation, Gadamer critiques aesthetic consciousness, particularly its process of aesthetic differentiation, which is as follows. Once aesthetics becomes autonomous, judgment replaces taste and consciousness becomes “the experiencing … center from which everything considered art is measured” (TM85). Whereas taste differentiates (that is, selects and rejects) on the basis of some content, “aesthetic differentiation is an abstraction that selects only on the basis of aesthetic quality as such” (TM85). Aesthetic consciousness thereby disregards everything in which a work of art is rooted (its original context of life, and the religious or secular function that gave it significance) so that it becomes visible as a “pure work of art” (TM85). Continuing with this same point, Gadamer concludes: “It practically defines aesthetic consciousness to say that it differentiates what is aesthetically intended from everything that is outside the aesthetic sphere” (TM85).
The consequences of “aesthetic differentiation” are mixed, according to Gadamer. What is good about it is that it separates the aesthetic from everything nonaesthetic and thus, in principle, allows the work of art to be seen in its true being as autonomous appearance. What is negative, and ultimately outweighs the positive contribution, is that the work is abstracted from the world in which it has meaning and now belongs only to the world of aesthetic consciousness: the work is autonomous but meaningless. What is at stake here, however, is not just the meaning of the work but, more fundamentally, its being a work in the first place. “What we call a work of art and experience (erleben) aesthetically depends on a process of abstraction” (TM85). In its extreme form, according to Gadamer, aesthetic consciousness “even abstracts from art” (TM8g). The work of art is thus reduced to an aesthetic object, that is, to an object of aesthetic consciousness (rather than of experience). As such it is an object but not a work.
This is a very strange history indeed. Art struggles for centuries to become autonomous—from reality or, more concretely, from religion, politics tied to monarchic rule, and metaphysics—and once it succeeds, aesthetics becomes autonomous as well. Understood only from the perspective of aesthetic consciousness, however, the work of art is alienated from reality. This means, however, that art is alienated from what makes it art—not just in terms of what makes something the particular historical work of art that it is, but in terms of what makes something a work of art in the first place. In effect, art stops being art once it becomes autonomous, at least so long as art is defined as appearance only in contrast to reality. To recover
These are very strong claims Gadamer is making. To understand them better, it is helpful to note their general philosophical context. Following Heidegger, Gadamer aims to break from the philosophical dichotomy between subject and object which is characteristic of modern philosophy. He claims, for example, that a general purpose of Truth and Method is “to show that understanding is never a subjective relation to a given ‘object’ but to the history of its effect; in other words, understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood” (TMxxxi). In the case of art, this means that “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself” (TMioo). This belonging can, in turn, “be illuminated only on the basis of the mode of being of the work of art itself” (TMioo). In other words, it is the mode of being of a work of art that determines our understanding of that work; so our understanding of the work is an effect of its mode of being. To capture this sense in which our understanding is an effect, Gadamer introduces the notion of “historically effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschicht-liches Bewusstsein), by which he means “at once the consciousness effected in the course of history and determined by history, and the very consciousness of being thus effected and determined.” In the case of art, aesthetic consciousness is therefore an effect of the mode of being of art qua autonomous appearance. It is thus an effect of art's autonomy; that is, aesthetic consciousness is what is achieved when aesthetics, following art, becomes autonomous.
Although discussion of Gadamer's notion of historically effected consciousness helps to clarify how aesthetic consciousness is formed and what is at stake in his critique of it, it also raises a new question. If aesthetic consciousness is indeed an effect of history and specifically of the autonomy of art and aesthetics, how can Gadamer (or we) resist it? The basis of such resistance must be historical, if he is going to be consistent with his own notion of historically effected consciousness. Presumably, his answer would be that the basis is the experience of art, which he insists has priority over aesthetic consciousness; for example, on the question of whether there is any truth experienced in art, experience says “yes,” while consciousness says “no,” and Gadamer defends experience. Since such truth is not as perspicacious as he believes, however, his answer does not explain how experience can trump consciousness; for, again, we cannot be sure, based on experience alone, of the truth that allegedly gives experience an advantage. Truth aside, the more basic problem here, I think, is the fact that Gadamer opposes experience to consciousness and sides with the former. For example, he says, “The significance of that whose being consists in expressing
Perhaps Gadamer has overstated his case. His criticism of aesthetic consciousness is, as we have seen, that it loses sight of the work of art and ends up with only an object. But he also says, more provocatively, that the being of art cannot be defined as an object at all, not just of aesthetic consciousness, “because the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself.” Gada-mer's claim is that experience is more than it knows of itself, and also that it is more than consciousness could ever know of it. Although this claim points to the limits of consciousness relative to the work or experience that it has taken as its object, such limits alone do not imply that art cannot be taken as an object at all. In addition, from the perspective of aesthetic consciousness, there is a relevant sense in which art (or the experience thereof) is an object, that is, an object of reflection. This object is not the same as the work of art that has been experienced, for reflection is not the same as experience. Yet the work that Gadamer is trying to recover is always already implicit in the object of aesthetic consciousness, so long as “object” here is understood as “the experience of the work of art.” Of course, the specific thing about the work of which aesthetic consciousness has allegedly lost sight is truth, but the principal truth about art that consciousness needs to acknowledge in order to understand the work properly is the truth that the work is autonomous. Surely, consciousness is capable of grasping this truth. Since it is precisely the extreme or absolute version of this same truth that has led to the problem of aesthetic consciousness in the first place, however, what is needed is a moderation of the autonomy of art (and of aesthetics) so that it does not undermine the very possibility of art. This is precisely what Gadamer proposes, and he can achieve this end, I believe, without abdicating aesthetic consciousness.
What Gadamer ultimately wants here, I think, is for art to have some content other than “aesthetic quality,” which means his aim is to recontextual-ize art while respecting its autonomy. But there are other ways of accomplishing this aim without abandoning aesthetic consciousness entirely. For example, in Gadamer's own earlier discussion of the cognitive dimension of art, namely, its role in human self-understanding, it was already established that what we experience in a work of art is a world other than that of consciousness; for self-understanding is possible only through mediation of something other than the conscious self, such as a work of art. Gadamer offers other examples of what he means by the content of art beyond “aesthetic
THE SUBJECTIVITY OF ART AND AESTHETICS
Gadamer critiques the subjectivization of aesthetics, a process that developed throughout the eighteenth century and culminated in Kant's Critique of Judgment. One of the principal motivations for Gadamer's critique is his interest in restoring the cognitive dimension of art, which he believes requires a new, nonsubjective foundation for aesthetics. What he is aiming for here, in short, is a conception of aesthetics “that transcends thinking from the perspective of subjectivity” (TMioo). I do not think such transcendence is either possible or desirable, even given Gadamer's own aims, as I interpret them.
According to Gadamer, “it was a methodological abstraction corresponding to a quite particular transcendental task of laying foundations which led Kant to relate aesthetic judgment entirely to the condition of the subject” (TMgy). The basis of Gadamer's challenge to Kant is, as we have seen, that an account of aesthetic judgment that excludes knowledge and truth from art runs into indissoluble contradiction with the “true experience of art.” He then counters the Kantian conception of aesthetic judgment with a her-meneutic ontology of art—characterized by play, symbol, and festival—as a mode of being that possesses knowledge and truth. Yet however attractive Gadamer's conception of art is, Kant—and no other theorist—is responsible for the subjectivization of aesthetics. There simply would be no aesthetics at all, at least not as we know it, had there not been—for complicated philosophical and social reasons—a subjective turn in our thinking about the production, experience, taste, and judgment of art.
Although the term ‘aesthetics’ (or at least ‘aesthetic’) has origins in Greek philosophy and a rich genealogy up to and beyond the Renaissance, it is well known that aesthetics did not emerge as an autonomous discipline within philosophy until the eighteenth century. One of the principal philosophical insights that contributed to this emergence is the realization that beauty (and, following it, any other aesthetic predicate) is neither a tran-scendens (as it was from Plato through at least medieval philosophy) nor a property of objects (as it was until, say, John Locke). Gadamer's own negative
Clearly, Gadamer does not mean to argue that we can uncritically revive the premodern philosophical belief in a nonsubjective conception of beauty (and of art in general). He is too historically minded in his thinking for such an argument. Yet he does believe that a contemporary version of the classical (principally Platonic/Aristotelian) conception of beauty linked to the good and truth could be hermeneutically appropriated if we could only overcome subjectivism in aesthetics. But this is the whole problem, I think: aesthetics is irreversibly subjective and so such an overcoming is impossible. The best way to argue this point against Gadamer, I think, is not to defend Kant or any other aesthetician or to criticize Plato and Aristotle, but rather to show that Gadamer's own aesthetic theory is more subjective than he would have us believe, given his earlier account of the cognitive role of art in human self-understanding.
To begin with, Gadamer acknowledges in a positive spirit that “modern aesthetics has fully recognized the ‘contribution of the subject’ to the construction of aesthetic experience” (RBisy). But what such theory overlooks, he adds, is that “the experience of art also presents that other dimension in which the play-like character of the creation, the very fact of its being ‘played’, comes to the fore” (RBiay). Although the concept of play is intended to capture the sense in which our experience of art is an event that happens to us beyond (and prior to) aesthetic consciousness, it is not opposed to subjectivity. Gadamer's underlying concern is rather to balance subjectivity with its other “dimension” rather than to overcome it. He is not always careful or consistent about this concern for balance, however. For example, the concept of art as play is explicitly introduced in Truth and Method as a way to overcome the subjectivity of aesthetics. In Gadamer's later writings, however, he uses the same concept to balance subjectivity, saying that it is through art as play that we catch sight of “what we are, what we might be, and what we are about” (RBi3o). In fact, he emphasizes the cognitive
Gadamer is therefore not against subjectivity tout court; rather, he is offering an alternative conception of it. It is this alternative, however sketchy it remains here, which provides evidence that Gadamer's aesthetics is more subjective than he claims. What he is interested in is a historically situated subjectivity rather than an abstract, alienated subjectivity in the form of aesthetic consciousness, as we saw in the previous section. In effect, he aims to recontextualize autonomous art. If so, then he must already acknowledge that the subjectivity of aesthetics—which, like the autonomy of art, is a historical achievement which both predates Kant and has still not been fully realized—cannot be transcended. We cannot transcend subjectivity because, as Gadamer himself emphasizes through his notion of historically effected consciousness, we cannot transcend our historicity. The task of aesthetics, in this light, is to understand the philosophical meaning and implications of the historical and ontological fact of art's subjectivity (along with its autonomy and historicity).
Gadamer is right that contemporary aesthetic theory is still marked by profound philosophical transformations in art that took place in the eighteenth century. Art was indeed severed from truth in that period, aesthetic consciousness did arise then along with the autonomy of art, and aesthetics, following art, did become deeply subjective. Although Gadamer's critiques of these transformations are rich with philosophical insights, I think it is a mistake to try to rehabilitate classical aesthetics. It is one thing to attain a better understanding of our contemporaneity by situating it in the context of its classical and modern genealogy; it is another thing entirely to
I agree with Gadamer that understanding the contemporary mode of art is the task of aesthetics today, and that recognizing that aesthetic understanding is historically effected is a philosophical precondition of this task. Although this recognition is by no means a guarantee that we shall get art right, getting it right is what aesthetics must constantly try to do as art continues to change its mode of being. Such is the hermeneutic nature of the historical dialogue about art to which Gadamer has contributed in ways that have only begun to be explored. My aim here has been to open up such exploration through a critical analysis of his aesthetics, which I believe may still help us to understand contemporary art, if only truth would not get in our way.
1. TMxxii-xxiii. For Gadamer's claim that such truth is unique to art, 105. I will return to this issue below. [BACK]
2. On the issue of truth claims in art see, for example, TMgy. Although the expression ‘truth claim’ suggests a notion of propositional truth, that is not what Gadamer has in mind; he works with a notion of truth as disclosure, which is discussed below. So, among other problems with this expression in Gadamer's aesthetics, his use of it is simply misleading. [BACK]
3. Joel Weinsheimer makes a three-way distinction regarding truth and art: the truth about art, the truth of art, and the truth about truth as revealed through the truth of art. Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), 99. In effect, I am confirming the first truth while criticizing the last two, and especially the second. [BACK]
4. Gadamer discusses other art forms, of course, but a modern picture is paradigmatic for him because it exists only along with “aesthetic consciousness” and, for that reason, it best exemplifies the results of “aesthetic differentiation”—two notions discussed below. [BACK]
5. TMi4o; RB35. The notion of “increase in being” is tied to (and, I think, could be replaced by) the notion of autonomy because it implies that a work of art is not a means to something else the way, for example, a mirror image is. [BACK]
6. TMi40. Gadamer makes much of the distinction between Darstellung (presentation) and Vorstellung (representation). [BACK]
7. RBno. For Gadamer, such self-fulfillment is what defines beauty, as the beautiful “fulfills itself in a kind of self-determination and enjoys its own selfrepresentation%
8. “The significance of that whose being consists in expressing an experience cannot be grasped except through an experience” (TMyo). This quote is discussed in more detail below. [BACK]
9. TMg8; cf. RBi6-i7;andTMioo: “We do not ask the experience of art to tell us how it conceives of itself, then, but what it truly is and what its truth is, even if it does not know what it is and cannot say what it knows.” [BACK]
10. Gadamer does acknowledge, however, that the experience of art constitutes a kind of evidence that is both too strong and too weak: too strong because nobody would venture to develop a model of progress in art as an analog to progress in science, too weak “in the sense that the artwork withholds the very truth that it embodies and prevents it from being conceptually concise” (“Reflections on My Philosophical Journey,” PHGG6). [BACK]
11. RBgg: “the meaning of the work of art lies in the fact that it is there.” [BACK]
12. Another issue here is whether the aesthetic qualities of a work of art can ever be isolated in the pure terms to which Gadamer claims aesthetic consciousness aspires. He may be mistaking their aspirations for achievements, aspirations which his own critique shows to be impossible to achieve. [BACK]
13. This point could also be tied to Heidegger's acknowledgment that it is misleading to call aktheia (unconcealment) truth because it is “not yet truth”; rather, aletheia “first grants the possibility of truth.” “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” in On Time and Being, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 69-70. [BACK]
14. Gadamer says that a text—and, by analogy, a work of art—“captivates us” before we are in a position “to test the claim to meaning that it makes” (TM4go). [BACK]
15. TM82. Cf. also PHGG44: “This was really the starting point of my whole hermeneutical theory. The artwork is a challenge for our understanding because over and over again it evades all our interpretations and puts up an invincible resistance to being transformed into the identity of the concept.” [BACK]
16. “In performing this abstraction, aesthetic consciousness … shows what a work of art is, and allows it to exist in its own right. I call this ‘aesthetic differentiation’” (TM8s). [BACK]
17. In Gadamer's words, “In order to do justice to art, aesthetics must go beyond itself and surrender the ‘purity’ of the aesthetic” (TMg2). Cf. alsoTMSi: “Is the aesthetic approach to a work of art the appropriate one? Or is what we call ‘aesthetic consciousness' an abstraction?” And “Heidegger's Later Philosophy” (PH2i8): “In the last analysis, we need to overcome the concept of aesthetics itself.” Based on interpretations of these quotes, some people consider Gadamer's aesthetics to be anti-aesthetics. I think, rather, that he critiques one type of aesthetic theory (the one based on what he calls “aesthetic consciousness”) and defends another, herme-neutic type (based on the experience of truth in art). I, in turn, am challenging Gadamer's aesthetics and proposing another, neither of which involves a critique of aesthetics tout court. [BACK]
18. TMxxxiv. Elsewhere, Gadamer says that historical consciousness in relation
19. Gadamer discusses two distinct notions of experience, Erlebnis and Erfahrung. He is not satisfied with the former because it stresses the fragmentariness of experience and thus cannot capture the truth of the hermeneutic continuity that constitutes human existence (TMg5-g7). The concept of Erfahrungis, introduced to capture this continuity (TMgy-gg). [BACK]
20. Is Gadamer setting up an opposition here between (the experience of) art and aesthetics, and siding with the former? Is this part of what some have referred to as his anti-aesthetics? If so, I again think that reconciliation rather than conflict is what is needed here. [BACK]
21. TMn6. See also PHGG43-44: the work of art distinguishes itself in “that one never completely understands it”; and 1*634: the fact that a work exists at all “represents an insurmountable resistance against any superior presumption that we can make sense of it all.” [BACK]
22. 16164, 32. There are some passages, however, that reaffirm the role of truth. Gadamer says, for example, that it is by virtue of the beautiful that we are able “to acquire a lasting remembrance of the true world” (RBi5). [BACK]
23. Amajor philosophical issue that the subjective ground of aesthetic judgment raises, of course, is how such judgment can be objective or universal. This is one of the issues which first gave rise to philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century and which has continued to trouble philosophers ever since. [BACK]
24. This confirms, I think, that truth is the normative basis of Gadamer's aesthetic critiques. [BACK]
25. Cf. RB, passim. Such appropriation is as much the means as the result of the overcoming of subjectivism Gadamer proposes. It consists of the redefinition of a number of central aesthetic concepts; in addition to beauty, see, for example, mimesis: TMi 13-15 and RBg2-io4, 116-22. [BACK]
26. Also at issue in Gadamer's critique of the subjectivization of aesthetics is its universality. Since the inception of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century, subjectivity has been a virtual given because of the subjective status of beauty and, by extension, all other aesthetic concepts, and universality has been a problem because, prima facie, such subjectivity seems to preclude universality. For Gadamer, however, universality is a given (RB13) because of the truths we experience in art, and subjectivity poses a problem because it threatens to undermine the universality of such truths. Despite Gadamer's emphasis on universality, however, he acknowledges in his later writings that it is rather weak. For example, he says, “The only thing that is universally familiar to us today is unfamiliarity itself, momentarily illuminated by an ephemeral glimmer of meaning. But how can we express that in human form” (RB79)? He also says “there is no longer a unified symbolic language capable of commanding our acceptance” (RB75); in fact contemporary art is characterized by “the dearth of the symbol, the very renunciation of the symbolic” (RB674). Such doubts put the universality of art seriously into question. [BACK]
27. Gadamer would not agree that the ontology of art changes over time. On this point he is an essentialist, which enables him to claim that what Plato and Aristotle say about art still has truth for us today. Although I agree, as I have said, that we can
28. In his later writings on art, those after Truth and Method, Gadamer stresses the problem raised by contemporary art, namely, that it breaks from all the traditional ways in which art has been legitimated by philosophy (RBy, 10, 22, 46, 77-78, 83). Although I agree that contemporary art makes such a break, I also think that part of the break is a challenge to the assumption of traditional aesthetics that art is something that needs to be legitimated. It is only from the perspective of the theories that regard art as a lie that art needs to be legitimated. Once the ontology of art is altered in the way that Gadamer himself proposes, the need for legitimation ends. [BACK]