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After Historicism, Is Metaphysics Still Possible?
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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.

If the unity of reason disintegrates into the multiplicity of its historical voices, however, the truth must relinquish its claim to universal validity. What, then, safeguards the binding force of our judgments, of our very orientations in life?

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.


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

great works, or the “eminent texts,” that establish the connection of “understanding and event.” With every new interpretation by a successive generation, of course, the criteria of judgment change. That which stays constant through this change, that which promises unity, universality, and generality, is solely the standard-setting power of the classic itself. The general becomes a constant in the medium of the effective history of authentic works.

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 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

work, nor in {he anticipated affability of a doyen in his dotage. He is, in fact, still quite capable of passing judgments with a sharp tongue. Their respect is also devoted to the person, and to his role as mediator between two generations of philosophy.

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.


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

of being, Gadamer appealed to the classical values, never totally forgotten, of dialogue, practical reason, and power ofjudgment.” Here Gadamer's allegiance had reached its limits.

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.

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