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9. Meaningless Hermeneutics?


Ronald Reiner's contribution to this collection strikes me as particularly far reaching, especially with respect to his argument that Gadamer avoids “the labyrinth of esotericism.” Beiner contends that unlike Nietzsche, Derrida, Heidegger, and even Strauss, Gadamer does not try to “read under or though or behind the text.” That is, he does not assume that “the ‘subtext’ is more meaningful than the text.” For this reason, according to Beiner, Gadamer must be (for better or worse) excluded from the ranks of postmodern thinkers. This argument, I believe, opens up something important about Gadamer, but its implications extend far beyond the question of his postmodernism. Virtually all interpreters during the last two millennia, and not just the postmodern ones, have been “esotericists” of various stripes, insofar as all posit some “deep meaning” or other. Thus, if Gadamer does not do so, if he has no need for the surface/depth distinction, then his theory of interpretation marks a momentous change in the history of interpretation theory, because a hermeneutics without deep meaning amounts to a hermeneutics without any meaning at all.

This is not the place to attempt even a thumbnail sketch of the herme-neutic theories over the centuries that have depended on the surface/ depth distinction.[1] It is enough to recall that in the West this distinction dates, at the very latest, from allegorical readings of the Greek epics, a practice that Christians have modified and continued to our own day. During the medieval period, the metaphor of the integument or cover was most predominant, branching out into figures of the shell or chaff on the one hand and the veil on the other. Correlative to expression as covering, understanding comes to be figured as dis-covery of what lies beneath, once the veil has been rent, the nut cracked, or the grain winnowed. The dichotomies of spirit and letter, figural and literal, content and form, involve a

similar topography of surface and depth, with the concomitant implication that understanding requires penetration through the container to the contained. Traditionally, then, interpretation consists in finding hidden meanings.

Gadamer, by contrast, says no such thing. He offers many descriptions for various aspects of understanding, but none of them involves “finding” or “meanings.” Among these descriptions, Beiner emphasizes Gadamer's dia-logical model. This avoids esotericism by placing both interlocutors on the same plane. Historically, the author occupied the superior position, since he knew the real meaning hidden from the reader; now, if postmodern interpreting implies no more than reversing the relative superiority of the two, with the interpreter instead of the author privy to the real meaning, then such interpreting is not nearly radical enough. Gadamer—more radically—accords neither interlocutor privileged possession of the subtext, and so his might be called a two rather than three-dimensional hermeneu-tics, a hermeneutics without depth, indeed without (real) meanings.

On the dialogical model understanding means “coming to an understanding” (TM385), not discovering meanings. No moment that could be called “finding the other's meaning” need occur in a conversation. Admittedly Gadamer does use the language of “finding” when he says, “Herme-neutical conversation, like real conversation, finds a common language” (TM388). What is found, however, is a language, not a meaning. And finding a language does not imply that the common language pre-exists the conversation, such that it could be hidden or lost or “found” in an epiphany of understanding. Whatever Gadamer does mean by “finding,” it overlaps with what he means by “creating”—as when he remarks that “Every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language” (TM378).

Paralleling the dialogical notion of understanding as the creation of a common language, Gadamer's famous thesis that understanding is the fusion of horizons (TM3o6) just as clearly avoids the need for any hierar-chized surface/depth distinction. The concept effusion rejects the superiority of the author (and the author's meaning) implied in the alleged need for empathy or historical transposition (that is, the need to “disregard ourselves” and subordinate ourselves to the other's standards). It is in opposition to the notion of finding as reconstruction that Gadamer asserts, “Understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well” (TMsgG). If understanding is a production, not a reconstruction of a pregiven meaning, “we understand in a different way [from the author] if we understand at all” (TMsgy). Yet it does not follow that “different from the author” means “same as ourselves.” The fusion model just as surely rejects the superiority of the interpreter (and the interpreter's meaning) implied by the alleged necessity of assimilation, that is, of “subordinating

another person to our own standards” (TM3O5). Fusion subverts the her-meneutics of depth by eliminating the dualism upon which the whole notion of meaning depends, the dualism that bifurcates the work into meaning and something that is not the meaning, whether the latter is conceived as the author's expression of the meaning (the form) or the reader's expression of the meaning (the interpretation). Where there is no dualism, there is no meaning.

Like the dialogue and fusion models, Gadamer's performance model of understanding also moves toward a monistic—or “meaningless”—herme-neutics. Here the paradigmatic example for conceptualizing what it means to interpret a work is Lawrence Olivier's interpretation of Othello, say, or Van Glib urn's interpretation of Beethoven. On this model, to interpret a work is to perform it; and performance does not distill out something that could be called a meaning, separable from the work. That is because, in Gadamer's view, the performance cannot be differentiated from the work itself. “It is in the performance,” Gadamer writes, “and only in it-as we see most clearly in the case of music—that we encounter the work itself” (TMi 16). Unless we are willing to say that the real music is actually the score and the real play is the script, then we must concede that the work is nowhere to be found more authentically than in the performance of it. This performance—whether on stage or in a scholarly article—is not an adventitious concealment that needs to be stripped away in order reach the work itself. Quite the contrary, Olivier's interpretation is “the coming-into-existence of [Othello] itself” (TMi 16). Just as the work of art cannot be bifurcated into genuine meaning and arbitrary form, so the understanding of it cannot be split into the real work itself and an arbitrary interpretation of it.

This indivisibility or “non-differentiation” (TMi 17), as Gadamer terms it in the context of aesthetics, marks the fundamental character of beauty, and explains why the beautiful is so important that Truth and Method begins and ends with it. Gadamer is no Platonist if that means being a dualist who radically distinguishes the Ideas above from the dim shadows that merely represent them here below. Yet that is not how Gadamer understands Plato at all, and it is precisely Plato's description of beauty in the Phaedrus that indicates why Plato should not be thus understood:

Now in the earthly likeness of justice and temperance and all other prized possessions of the soul there dwells no luster; nay, so dull are the organs wherewith men approach their images that hardly can a few behold that which is imaged, but with beauty it is otherwise…Beauty, as we said, shone bright amidst these visions, and in this world below we apprehend it through the clearest of our senses, clear and resplendent. For sight is the keenest mode of perception vouchsafed us through the body; wisdom, indeed, we cannot see thereby … nor yet any other of those beloved objects, save only beauty; for beauty alone

this has been ordained, to be most manifest to sense and most lovely of them all. (Phaedrus, 250b, d)[2]

For Gadamer “the metaphysical crux of Platonism” consists in explaining methexis, “the relation of the appearance to the idea” (TM48 1). (As we will see, this is the crux of Gadamer's hermeneutics as well.) All the “beloved objects” except beauty can be apprehended only indirectly, through “the earthly likeness. “Justice, temperance, wisdom, and the good generally must be represented in order to be understood. But beauty, as Plato describes it, has its own luster, and so requires no extrinsic mediation. “Obviously what distinguishes the beautiful from the good,” Gadamer infers, “is that the beautiful of itself presents itself, that its being is such that it makes itself immediately evident. This means that beauty has the most important ontolog-ical function: that of mediating between idea and appearance” (TM481). Unlike the good, there is no mistaking beauty. It seems exactly what it is. For this reason it makes no sense to ask, “This seems beautiful, but it is really?” All beauty is true beauty.

This insight has implications not just for the nature of interpretation but also for the kind of truth that interpretation can have. Negatively expressed, the truth of interpretation conceived on the model of beauty cannot be a correspondence kind of truth because beauty lacks the duality on which correspondence depends. If beauty “presents itself,” as Gadamer says, then the presentation of beauty is not something other than itself. That is, the presentation is not an extrinsic representation distinguishable from the thing but an action of the thing itself. As we see from the performance model and from the example of beauty, interpretation is not an adventitious process but the work's own self-presentation. Positively expressed, to say that beauty presents itself is to say that it evidences itself. The particular kind of truth conceived on this model is therefore self-evident truth — traditionally called common sense — which Gadamer considers foundational for all other types of truth.

Gadamer opens himself to misunderstanding in this respect, because all his talk of “truth claims” gives the impression that he thinks of truth as something requiring verification, proof, or evidence.[3] The main thrust of his argument, however, points in exactly the opposite direction. Art works do not have meanings in the form of prepositional contents that may or may not turn out to be true, depending on further investigation: they are themselves the evidence of their truth. In the case of self-evident truth, no other evidence than itself is either necessary or possible. Such truth presents itself. On the model of self-evident truth, then, just as on the model of beauty, interpretation does not involve finding the meaning of a work, and true interpretation does not involve finding the real meaning. The history

of interpretation, the Wirkungsgeschichte, is the history of the work's presenting, evidencing, “proving” itself.

More specifically for Gadamer's hermeneutics, interpreting is the history of the work's presenting itself in language. Not unexpectedly, given what we have seen thus far, Gadamer's phenomenology of language takes a nondu-alistic form, one that runs quite counter to the familiar semiotic theories of this century. The dualism of signifier and signified, Gadamer contends, has no phenomenological basis, for in speaking we have no awareness of the world distinct from the word, and no awareness of the word distinct from the world. Quite the contrary, “We may speak of an absolute perfection of the word, inasmuch as there is no perceptible relationship—i.e., no gap—between its appearance to the senses and its meaning. … In this sense all words are ‘true’—i.e., their being is wholly absorbed in their meaning” (TM4io-n). To describe words as “true” clearly wrenches our notion of truth because of the firmly entrenched notion that only propositions bear truth-values. And yet it is easy to see that the notion of true words coincides with Gadamer's focus on self-evident truth, where the nondifferentiation of presentation and presented, interpretation and interpreted, constitutes the truth-value. In any case, Gadamer is not really talking about individual words (or even sentences) as being true, but of languages. Every language fits its world perfectly—is self-evidently true—precisely insofar as signifier and signified do not correspond but rather coincide, dissolve in their distinctness, so that language does not represent the world. It is the world's self-presentation, the world interpreting itself.

These considerations make it clearer why Gadamer begins with aesthetics on the way to ontology. His is a hermeneutic ontology in that what is true of the work of art interpreting itself in language-namely that this process does not dichotomize the work from its interpretations-is also true of being generally. “Being that can be understood is language” (TM474). This, Gadamer explains,

means that [being] is of such a nature that of itself it offers itself to be understood. … To come into language does not mean that a second being is acquired. Rather, what something presents itself as belongs to its own being. Thus everything that is language has a speculative unity: it contains a distinction, that between its being and its presentations of itself, but this is a distinction that is really not a distinction at all. (TM475)

The ontological nondifferentiation between being and its presencing in language stands as the broadest implication that Gadamer draws from the nondifferentiation between a work and its meaning.

It would seem to follow from Gadamer's hermeneutics, then, that we should move beyond nondifferentiation to speak of the identity of the work and its interpretations-that is, we should simply dispense with the whole

notion of meaning as anything other than the work itself. Notably, however, Gadamer never makes this move, never takes his argument to what seems its obvious conclusion. He does indeed say that there is a unity between being and its presentations of itself—but this, he insists in the language of Hegel, is a “speculative unity,” not an identity. A speculative unity “contains a distinction” that is “really not a distinction.” But then why say it involves a distinction at all? Why not affirm a monistic hermeneutics in which there is always and only the work itself? Put differently, what indispensable conceptual functions are performed by the concept of meaning and the her-meneutic dualism on which it depends, such that we cannot simply dispense with them?

With regard to legal hermeneutics, a paradigmatic example for Gadamer, the work/meaning or work/interpretation dualism serves to explain the distinctiveness of judicial interpretation as such. The process of interpretation needs to be kept distinct from that of legislation, lest the judge assume the powers of the legislator; and one distinctive characteristic of interpretation is that it can be wrong. Ajudge can be mistaken. But legislators are never wrong—not because they are particularly far-sighted, but because “wrong interpretation”—and, more broadly, interpretation as such—does not pertain to the process of legislation. One function of legal dualism, then, consists in making it possible to distinguish between the law and some of its interpretations, that is, the wrong ones.[4] One might say, further, that where there is no possibility of misinterpretation—getting the meaning wrong—we are not dealing with interpretation at all but something more like legislation. A monistic or “meaningless” hermeneutics cannot explain wrong interpretation because that is simply the extreme instance in which an interpretation differs from the text. Dualist hermeneutics best explains that difference.

Gadamer does not use the legal argument against monism, however, because it is a two-edged sword: whatever the theoretical desirability of distinguishing between the legislative and judicial branches of government, in practice the two overlap. We know that legislators cannot make law without acting like judges—namely by interpreting, insuring that the proposed law coheres with the body of existing law—and likewise judges cannot interpret the law without making it, something like legislators. The notion of ‘judge-made law” derives from the fact that applying old law to new cases results in interpretations sufficiently novel that they amount to ‘judicial legislation.” Judicial creativity makes it unusually difficult to define the very notion of misinterpretation, because not all new and different interpretations, not all “legislative” interpretations that create law, are wrong. The example of legal interpretation, then, does not constitute decisive evidence for herme-neutic dualism and against monism.

Quite the contrary, if anything, this example shows that sometimes we

need a dualistic hermeneutics (because judges are fallible and some putative interpretations are not presentations of the law itself), and sometimes we need a monistic hermeneutics (because the most perfect subservience to existing law still refashions it in an ongoing process of evolution without a decisive break). My thesis is that Gadamer's hermeneutics acknowledges just this double need. Although, as Beiner rightly points out, by way of redressing a long-standing imbalance, Gadamer emphasizes the nonrepresen-tational, monistic aspect of hermeneutics over the meaning-based, dualistic aspect of hermeneutics, he does not in fact dispense with either one. The question is how the two relate. For Gadamer, we have seen, “the metaphysical crux of Platonism” consists in defining “the relation of the appearance to the idea” (TMjSi). The crux of Gadamer's hermeneutics, likewise, consists in reconciling the unity of meaning with the multiplicity of understandings. For him, interpretation constitutes the site of this reconciliation, where the distinction between the one and the many is superseded.

In the famous passage of Truth and Method explicating the fusion of horizons, Gadamer seems oddly indecisive about whether there is one horizon or two. Perhaps now we are in a position to understand why.

We are familiar with the power of [the fusion of horizons] chiefly from earlier times and their naivete about themselves and their heritage. In a tradition this process of fusion is continually going on, for there old and new are always combining into something of living value, without either being explicitly foregrounded from the other.

If, however, there is no such thing as these distinct horizons, why do we speak of the fusion of horizons and not simply of the formation of the one horizon? … To ask the question means that we are recognizing that understanding becomes a scholarly task only under special conditions…. Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of a tension between the text and the present…. Historical consciousness is aware of its own otherness and hence foregrounds the horizon of the past from its own. On the other hand, it is itself, as we are trying to show, only something superimposed upon a continuing tradition, and hence it immediately recombines with what it has foregrounded itself from in order to become one with itself again in the unity of the historical horizon that it thus acquires … which means that as the historical horizon is projected, it is simultaneously superseded.

The metaphor effusion is often taken as proof that Gadamer never comes to grips with fission, multiplicity, otherness of all kinds, personal, cultural, historical. This seems an implausible charge when directed at a hermeneutics that takes as its motto: “we understand differently, if we understand at all.” Yet in the above passage, admittedly, Gadamer does begin with the nondifferentiation

of old and new that characterizes their ongoing unification in a naive tradition. But second, just as Heidegger distinguishes between everyday Auslegung and scholarly Interpretieren, Gadamer moves on to acknowledge that, unlike naive tradition, a more sophisticated historical consciousness knows that times change, new and old are different, and historians must recognize the otherness of history to do their job well. And yet, third, the historian's job is not just to recognize difference but to understand it. And understanding means discovering that the otherness of the past (however arcane and unfamiliar) is never absolute; it means discovering history's continuity with the present, and correlatively discovering the historian's own hitherto unrecognized continuity with history. Understanding consists in sophisticated historical consciousness forever coming to grips with its own naivete.

Postmodernism has not moved much beyond historicism, insofar as both insist upon difference and inveigh against assimilation. Both historicism and postmodernism leave understanding quite unexplained because they conceive of all understanding as assimilationist and hence equivalent to misunderstanding; but this makes the different simply unintelligible. The other thus becomes the very embodiment of inscrutability, and all injunctions to respect this unintelligible other come to have a hollow sound. For Gadamer, too, fusion means discovering sameness, kinship, continuity. And yet, however assimilationist this seems and is, understanding in his view not only finds sameness in difference: “we understand differently, if we understand at all.” Sameness and difference are indivisible in Gadamer's herme-neutics, and neither can be suppressed if interpretation is to be made intelligible. An interpretation that is not the same as what it interprets is not an interpretation but a new creation; an interpretation that is not different from what it interprets is not an interpretation but a copy. What distinguishes Gadamer's hermeneutics in this regard is that for him interpretation involves this interminable interplay between sameness and difference, the irreducible methexis of the one and the many.


1. For a good overview, see Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994). [BACK]

2. Trans. R. Hackenforth, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), 496–97. [BACK]

3. Gadamer's notion of a claim comes from Kierkegaard and Lutheran theology, where it signifies the basis upon which an unspecified demand could be concretized in the future (TMiay). [BACK]

4. False interpretations and their causes, the centerpiece of every critical hermeneutics,

lie mostly outside Gadamer's purview insofar as (for better or worse) his is an uncritical hermeneutics, focusing on self-evident truth, for which no proofs or arguments can be offered other than itself. Concerning self-evident truth, like beauty, non est disputandum. An interpreter who fails to see what is self-evident is more blind than mistaken (TMgaa), and so the notion of (wrong) meaning never comes into play. [BACK]

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