The Conflict of Paideias in Gadamer's Thought (1)
Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the traditional ideal of Greek education as turning the student toward everything exempt from necessity comprising the beautiful. (2) This paideia consisted above all in developing a harmonious disposition of the soul, a hexis or "habit," through early training in music and gymnastic. (3) Its guiding purpose was to create citizens fit to govern in freedom.
Clearly the importance of paideia as an educational concept can hardly be over-emphasized. Gadamer is an increasingly influential figure in the philosophy of education. He is also one of the eminent classicists of our times. Yet although paideia and its relevance to contemporary education forms a recurring theme in Gadamer's writings, this historical dimension of his approach to education has been virtually ignored in the scholarly literature. (4) One may speculate that the reason for this lacuna is a tendency to approach the subject more analytically than historically. Moreover, the theme appears in so many essays, spanning Gadamer's entire career, that it is difficult to follow the trail of his study. (5)
This trail turns out, however, to be anything but desultory. Gadamer's analysis of paideia has been consistent over the years and he has deepened it by revisiting the issue in various contexts. Always he has been concerned with application to our lives, to the present. (6) Thus during the Nazi years his studies of paideia focused on the Platonic effort to temper the tyrannical bent of the human. In recent years they have been impelled by the urgent question: What kind of paideia is possible in conditions of industrial society and global culture?
The Contemporary Situation
Certainly these conditions are difficult. Nevertheless, Gadamer sees positive possibilities for globalizing the development in German history of paideia as Bildung. (7) The purpose is also the creation of responsible civic freedom, although on a different scale and with a broader sense of community than in the past. Gadamer's own focus is, naturally enough, the universityalthough he does voice the hope that the university tradition of free inquiry will become a model for education in general. (8) At the university level, free inquiry is the sine qua non of Bildung. (9) To preserve its institutional possibility, Gadamer insists that we must hold together against all odds the connection between genuine research and teaching. To him this connection defines the very essence of the university, developed over the last two centuries, as a place where doctrinal instruction has been replaced by research. (10)
From this perspective, debate over whether researchers make good teachers loses relevance because good teaching can only flourish in a non-ideological environment. A "teaching university" is an institutional oxymoron if one wishes to accomplish more with teaching than technical instruction or indoctrination. Moreover, this means that the importance of research is not to be measured in terms of contributions to the advancement of human knowledge. One could question whether this ideal ever did make sense for research in the humanities, but in any case it has become increasingly fanciful in contemporary circumstances. The pedagogical necessity is rather to show by precept that one can learn to think for oneself, that open inquiry is possible. The sciences appear to have that possibility well secured, but methodologically circumscribed. In humanistic Bildung the threat to open and non- ideological learning may be seen from three interrelated directions. One is science itself, with its augmentation of the authority of expertise connected with increasing specialization. The scientism of specialized knowledge and the culture of expertise are antithetical to Bildung, which entails learning to think for oneself about the most important matters of the whole and the human good. (11) The second source of threat to genuine education is the perennial problem of self-serving ambition in the absence of any certain knowledge of that good. The third is the characteristically modern issue of ideology. (12)
The "New" Paideias
All of these issues have their roots in Greek paideia, not in terms of its traditional ideal but of a radical challenge to that ideal, which Gadamer calls the "new" paideia. The new paideia was the education proffered by the sophists. In a cultural campaign of two generations, this new paideia effectively vanquished the traditional because it brought the power of conscious argument against unself-aware praxis. (13) Simply put, the new paideia, or at least its more virulent strands, undermined conventional morality by arguing that morality is only convention, and in so doing corrupted the youth by appealing to untrammeled human desire, in particular the desire for power.
This constituted an enormous threat, especially to the Athenian body politic which was already in process of dissolution from the direct and indirect effects of the Peloponnesian War. (14) Sophistic paideia arose at a time of cultural crisis and moral confusion, which worked to its advantage. (15) Yet Gadamer also sees sophistic rather than traditional paideia as the historical source of the "new, enlightened shape of the spirit that we call Bildung." (16) This is precisely because sophistic paideia was the first to hold to an ideal of conscious learning, imparted as an art or techne of argumentation. As the art of argumentation, the new paideia led to what Gadamer frequently calls the "sophistic enlightenment," which was precursor and partial cause of the European movement of the 18th century.
Moreover, it was in direct response to this sophistic paideia that Plato wrote his dialogues. From his earliest Platonic essays to the present, Gadamer has stressed the dialogues' oppositional pedagogical purpose. In the figure especially of Socrates, we have here a new kind of new paideia, the philosophic. Philosophic paideia is subsequent to the sophistic and fully shares its essential quality of bringing thinking to consciousness through argumentation. Indeed, Gadamer credits the sophistic enlightenment with crucial insight into the dangerous human desire for power, the "tyrannical will to independence" or "martial nature," which must be brought into harmony with an equally primordial, if rarer, love of knowledge or "philosophical potential." That is the task of philosophic paideia. (17) Thus the philosophic paideia takes its bearings from sophistic paideia as its deepest opponent and counterimage. (18) The purpose of the Socratic art of conversation, says Gadamer, was "to avoid being talked out of the fact that there is such a thing as the Just, the Beautiful, and the Good." (19)
Cynicism, however, was by no means the original intent of sophistic paideia. Its claim was not to denigrate or undermine, but to teach virtue, meaning in particular civic virtue, understood in the same way as always. The new element was that it proposed to accomplish by art or techne what had been done before by blind tradition. (20) This claim included not only the teaching of excellence, but concomitant with that excellence, personal success as well. The specific expertise elevated in sophistic paideia, the art of argumentation, was a "techne of success" which in Gadamer's description was a "bogus techne." Sophistic paideia involves a "technical mentality." (21) Techne, like the narrower concept of technology, has to do with making. The sophists encouraged the belief that they were able to make something of the utmost importance, namely virtue or excellence (arete) in the youth. The technical mentality assumes the teachability of all things, and thereby overreaches the boundaries of its own knowledge. It becomes deceptive, on the basis of self-deception. True knowledge, Gadamer points out, always knows its own limits. (22)
The problem of self-serving ambition likewise arises from a failure to recognize the limits of knowledge, albeit in a different way. The demagogue, who is the exemplary case, is not the same as the sophist. The sophist seeks to win his arguments; the demagogue, to flatter his audiences. However, they come close. Both represent distortions of discourse. Both are manipulators of the logoi. (23) Lovers of power gravitated naturally to sophistic paideia for instruction and comfort. It is not for nothing that the Platonic dialogues depict so many notorious demagogues among the students of the sophists.
Sophistry and Philosophy
However, those same demagogues were among the closest associates and interlocutors of Socrates as well. In a 1933 essay, Gadamer mentions the "fatal nearness" (fatale Nähe) of true paideia and the sophistic movement. (24) In 1983 he speaks of the "fatal neighborhood" (fatale Nachbarschaft) of Socratic dialectic and the new art of dialectical argumentation being taught to the youth of Athens. (25) Another essay published in that year refers to the "fatal confusion (fatale Verwechslung) of the new-fangled, sophistic conduct (Wesen) and Socratic effectiveness." (26) And again, in an essay published in 1991 he points to the "fatal similarity" (fatalen Ähnlichkeit) between the sophist and the philosopher or dialectician. (27) This is not a common adjective of Gadamer's in other contexts, and it indicates clearly enough the seriousness of the issue at hand. (28)
It turns out that the political level of the struggle between philosophy and sophistry is introductory to a deeper level at which sophistry may be seen as virtually indistinguishable from philosophy, to the point of constituting a tendency or tension within philosophy itself a nascent "impurity," as Gadamer puts it, in philosophical thinking. (29) This impurity belongs to all reasoning that seeks convincing arguments without objective standards of proof, which means all reasoning about what is good. In reasoning about the good, the operative art is rhetorican art which, insofar as it entails convincing through genuine understanding, Gadamer connects with hermeneutics. (30) The idea that there could be an art of rational dialogue that is void of rhetoric, Gadamer calls "shockingly unrealistic." (31) On the hermeneutical level, rhetoric is not just a manipulative technique but rather a power for creating genuine movement in thought. What we pejoratively call "manipulation" takes place through the persuasiveness of deceptive appearance, whereas the soul is properly influenced through images of what is real. (32) However, semblance and image contain the same potential for error. For both are effects of distance, of the peculiar human ability to set oneself and things apart from one another in thought.
Gadamer calls distancing and the overcoming of distance "the exceptionally dangerous characteristic of humans." (33) It is true that without distancing themselves from the immediacy of desire, human beings could accomplish nothing of wider significance. (34) The fundamental agent of distancing is language. The distance created by language, the linguistic life-world, is what makes the human itself distinctive. But this same distance creates the "weakness of the logoi," because as means of knowing, words are not themselves essential to the knowledge they present and can therefore be misdirected or lose their original intent and meaning. (35)
At issue is the difference between true and false wisdom, or wisdom and the deceitful appearance of wisdom. (36) In the Platonic dialogues this difference distinguishes right and wrongnot as an ontological opposition, for it presupposes no particular 'nature' of good or evil, but as a political distinction between Socrates and the sophists. The problem is that from the outside, the ethical difference upon which this political distinction rests is invisible. It is, in fact, a question of purpose or intention (Intention) (37) and it is precisely intentions, as opposed to meaning, that Gadamer considers hermeneutically inaccessible. The will to true dialectic is a hexis or matter of disposition. (38)
On the other hand, simple intentionality is not enough. There is also the question of knowledge. The "duty to know" must supplement the "indeterminate authority" of good intentions. (39) But how can one learn "the Just, the Beautiful, and the Good"? Traditional paideia, at its best, inculcated these matters in the conduct of the honorable life. The advent of philosophical paideia by no means supplanted this practice, but could only build upon its foundation. (40) Indeed, so far is virtue or excellence from being directly teachable that Plato had to explain its presence by recourse to the notion of "divine dispensation," in order, says Gadamer, polemically to oppose the sophistic paideia. (41)
The dialectician or philosopher (42) is characterized not by the "possession" of any special sort of wisdom, but must rather in his or her own person be its living incarnation. (43) As education for this way of conduct, Plato offered the philosophical counter-art to sophistic argumentation, the "art of dialogue." This art is pedagogical through and through, its purpose being "dialectically to undermine the prejudices of early training." (44) It is only with the success of "pedagogical dialogue" that genuine dialectic takes over the course of thinking. (45)
However, this dialectical challenge is necessarily negative. It confuses the learner. Unsettling one's prejudgment is the precondition of clarity, so Gadamer views this confusion as productive. (46) But it is also a dangerous condition. Sophists and philosophers share this"masterly ability to find contradictory arguments and to confuse and refute the other." (47) A teaching that leads to and from such confusion in the wrong way becomes a teaching of error and wrongdoing.
The Sophistic Descent
There is a descent that Gadamer makes visible in the course of sophistic paideia, from a well-meant but pragmatic notion of the Good and the Just to self-aware conventionalism to the denial of the possibility of truth behind appearance, which constitutes a false assertion of knowledge. (48) What began under the banner of "well-advisedness" or practical reasonableness (49) ended up as an "intoxicating and frightening new art." (50) Despite his partial defense of sophistic paideia, Gadamer notes that at the end of the day, the sophist bears the greatest resemblance to the "con man," the congenital liar. (51) The sophistic descent is toward self-aggrandizing wrongdoing, not error as such. This descent represents an empowerment of the same human tendency toward self-assertion that makes it difficult for people to listen to others and to change their minds, even for the best of reasons. In sophistry that tendency is liberated.
This is the inner story of sophistic paideia, which, with an historical twist, is repeated today, in an age when the hunger for power readily finds institutional expression and information is routinely, and unapologetically, subjected to manipulation. (52) The historical twist is the "molding of social consciousness," as Gadamer puts it, by the competition of ideologies and interests in modern society. (53) Modern ideological thinking is a kind of hybrid between dialectics and sophistry. It is well-meaning, at least in the ideologue's self-image, and certainly attempts to hold to what is right as opposed to the demagogue's narrow self-interest; (54) but it also involves the false assumption and deceptive appearance of knowledge.
The fundamental question, then, is: What is semblance (Schein)? (55) With this question we are taken beyond ethical assertion to a close reading of the invisible yet radical difference between the sophist and the philosopher as it is presented in the Platonic dialogues. Semblance as distinguished from that which appears is not what it appears to be. Semblance is connected with the problem of nonbeing, but as appearance of something it is not nonbeing. It is somehow being and nonbeing together. (56)
Gadamer concludes that being and nonbeing, albeit for very different reasons, are equally incomprehensible on their own. (57) To distinguish true and false paideia there is no ultimate guide in speech. It is not merely a surpassingly difficult matter. It is impossible. That is why the answer must be found in life instead.
Conclusion: Hermeneutics and Paideia
This points to the decisive primacy of action or praxis. Gadamer, in fact, does not simply accept the dichotomy of theory and practice, but points to the Greek origins of theoria as the "highest intensification and purification" of practical action. (58) This applies directly to philosophical hermeneutics. As understanding of what actually takes place in the act of understanding, hermeneutical experience is directed toward hermeneutical practice. "Theory," insofar as it can be separated from "practice," is subsequent to it. (59) Hermeneutics, properly understood, is immune from ideological bias because it involves no "conscious application" to any subject matter that can be distorted. (60)
Hermeneutics shares this lack of concern for any particular message or doctrine with the interests behind ideologies that utilize them for purposes of power, i.e., modern demagoguery. Yet it shares with ideology the effort to raise understanding to the conceptual level. (61) The sophistic descent today exhibits a split between cynical intentions and false understanding, neither of which is concerned with knowledge of what it does not know, which, as we have seen, Gadamer considers the mark of true knowledge.
Although the technical mentality shares this essential defect of sophistic understanding, Gadamer finds an important difference. Unlike interest and ideology, art or techne is, in its own sphere, real knowledge. Its only self-deception involves precisely the knowledge of limits in question. Self-confidence in one's sphere of competence easily overreaches. On the other hand, however, Gadamer sees in this distinction a positive possibility for the future of paideia in an age that is defined "quite unequivocally" by science and technology. (62)
Knowledge of limits requires a certain distance from what one knows. In techne or art Gadamer believes that Plato saw the possibility of such distance in direct proportion to the excellence of one's grasp of the practical knowledge in question. An example is the fact that one can lie most effectively in one's area of expertise. It is precisely this distance that makes possible a transcendence of competence which "liberates for the perspective of authentic practice." (63) This is the perspective of the question of the good, brought to light in an experience of reality that can grow from competence rather than transgressing its bounds.
To explore that question is a hermeneutical task. With this, we are returned to the contemporary issue of the institutional conditions for any dialogue that furthers genuine dialectic. Gadamer's own research is an object lesson in open inquiry as opposed to imparting doctrina. The pedagogical purpose of that open inquiry is to help inoculate students from ideological manipulation by drawing them into philosophic paideia. Just like the original, contemporary philosophic paideia sets out to expand conscious awareness not by providing conclusions but by pointing toward an understanding of the basic realities of human constancy and change. (64) Hence Gadamer's summary of his own career as a teacher:
All references except otherwise noted are to works by Gadamer. References to his Gesammelte Werke (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1987; hereafter referred to as GW) are for untranslated materials only, and for the reader's convenience I have provided translations of relevant passages.
(1) The research for this paper was greatly facilitated by the Philology and Philosophy Project, which has created an electronic version of Gadamer's Gesammelte Werke. The results of this project are currently being made available on the Web as a comprehensive word-index to the printed version of the Gesammelte Werke. The project is directed by Peter A. Batke, Humanities Computing Specialist at Princeton University, aided by my wife, Mulki Al-Sharmani, and myself. The Web site is: http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/phph.
(2) Truth and Method, Second Revised Edition, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, trs. (New York: Continuum, 1993), 477 (Hereafter referred to as TM).
(3) See for example "Plato and the Poets," in Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, P. Christopher Smith, tr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 53, where Gadamer refers to Werner Jaeger's formulation.
(4) In the definitive book on this topic, paideia is taken to be simply equivalent to "education." See references under "Paideia" in Subject Index, Shaun Gallagher, Hermeneutics and Education (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 394-395.
(5) By my count there is substantive discussion of paideia in 12 separate writings in the Gesammelte Werke, with publication dates between 1933 and 1986, although there are many other relevant works. Particularly helpful for this paper was an essay published in 1991, "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik. Theätet lernt das im Sophistes," GW, vol. 7, 338-369.
(6) As Gadamer puts it, "Platonic philosophy serves distinct political ideas, which could not possibly be ours. But, in recalling Plato, we can help clarify our own problems." "Notes on Planning for the Future," in Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson, eds., Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 170.
(7) The relation of paideia and Bildung is beyond the scope of this paper, except to note that broadly speaking, the latter to Gadamer is a translation of the former into modern German culture.
(8) "The Idea of the University," in Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History, 57.
(9) See "Interview: The German University and German Politics. The Case of Heidegger," op. cit., 7.
(10) "The Idea of the University," op. cit., 48.
>(11) Ibid., 50. See discussion of Bildung as education toward the universal in Truth and Method, 9 ff.
(12) See for example "The Idea of the University," op. cit., 57.
(13) P. Christopher Smith, tr., The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 47.
(14) "Platos Denken in Utopien. Ein Vortrag vor Philologen," GW, vol. 5, 228.
(15) See for example The Idea of the Good, 61, and "Die Neue Platoforschung," GW, vol 5, 228.
(16) "Prometheus und die Tragödie der Kultur," GW, vol. 9, 158.
(17) "Plato and the Poets," op. cit., 56-57.
(18) "Plato's Educational State," in Dialogue and Dialectic, 77-78.
(19) "Dialectic and Sophism in Plato's Seventh Letter," in Dialogue and Dialectic, 117.
(20) The Idea of the Good, 47-48.
(21) The quotes are from Ibid., 49, 61, 48.
(22) "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 350.
(23) Ibid., 366. See also 348: "In the Sophist at the end of the conversation it becomes clear enough how close together the sophist and the demagogue really are (Sophist 268b), and that leads to the next dialogue concerning the true statesman." (My translation)
(24) "Die Neue Platoforschung," 229.
(25) "Sokrates' Frömmigkeit des Nichtwissens," GW, vol. 7, 104.
(26) "Plato's Denken im Utopien. Ein Vortrag vor Philologen," GW, vol. 7, 282. (My translation)
(27) "Dialektik is nicht Sophistik," 354.
(28) The adjective "fatal" is used only 16 other times in the Gesammelte Werke, with no repetition of context like the four cited.
(29) "Dialectic and Sophism in Plato's Seventh Letter," op. cit., 122.
(30) "On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection," in Bruce R. Wachterhauser, ed., Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986), 282.
(31) "Reply to my Critics," in Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, eds., The Hermeneutic Tradition from Ast to Ricoeur (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 292.
(32) See "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 351.
(33) "The Idea of the University," op. cit., 55.
(34) See TM 13.
(35) See "Dialectic and Sophism in Plato's Seventh Letter," op. cit., 113-116.
(36) "[T]he sophist is differentiated from the philosopher in that the former claims only an apparent wisdom, while the latter seeks true wisdom." "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 350. (My translation)
(37) Gadamer makes this point forcefully: "The difference does not lie in argumentation, but in the intention of such arguers. Therein alone lies the difference between philosophers and sophists." "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 365. (My translation)
(38) The Idea of the Good, 39.
(39) "The Limitations of the Expert," in Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History, 189.
(40) The idea in the Republic of a paideia independent of tradition is, Gadamer says, the exact opposite of paideia as the Greeks understood it, and of modern Bildung as well. See "Plato and the Poets," op. cit., 53. Here, then, is where the fantasy and dystopia of the Republic begins.
(41) The Idea of the Good, 51.
(42) See reference in "Das Vaterbild im griechischen Denken," 365, to Aristotle, Metaphysics 1004 b23-27: "Now sophistry and dialectics busy themselves with the same genus of things as philosophy, but philosophy differs from dialectic in the manner of its capacity, and from sophistry in the kind of life chosen. Dialectics is tentative concerning things which philosophy knows, sophistry makes the appearance of knowing without knowing." Hippocrates G. Apostle, tr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 57.
(43) "Hermeneutics as a Theoretical and Practical Task," in Frederick G. Lawrence, tr., Reason in the Age of Science (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 122.
(44) "Goethe and Philosophy," in Robert H. Paslick, tr., Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue: Essays in German Literary Theory (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), 18.
(45) TM 464.
(47) "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 350. (My translation)
(48) See "Mathematik und Dialektik bei Plato," GW, vol. 7, 296: "It is naturally possible to construct for such a position, which rejects all natural right and limits itself to the management of effective justice, a universal philosophical theory. Such a theory could then leave matters of political right to appear as a special case of a universal conventionalism and relativism....It is at the least doubtful that only the Platonic Socrates was confronted with such a teaching. It could be, and I mean that we have come to believe, that Plato was the first one to have discovered the relativistic implications of the technical and political pragmatism of the older generation of sophists." (My translation)
(49) The Idea of the Good, 36.
(50) "On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection," op. cit., 280.
(51) "Plato," in Heidegger's Ways, 92.
(52) See "On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutic Reflection," op. cit., 283-4.
(53) "The Idea of the University," op. cit., 57.
(54) This is an essential part of the "dialectical art." See The Idea of the Good, 40.
(55) "Dialektik ist nicht Sophistik," 354.
(56) See Ibid., 355: "In the impossible holding-together of being and appearance, of phenomenon, seeming, and appearance, is hidden an interweaving of being and nonbeing." (My translation)
(57) See Ibid., 361: "It will be shown first at the end of the whole conversation, that thereby the untruth (Unwesen) of the sophists, but also the true nature of the dialectician, has not yet been constituted." (My translation)
(58) "On the Primordiality of Science," in Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History, 19. See also "Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy," in Reason in the Age of Science, 89 f.
(59) "On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection," op. cit., 279.
(60) "Reply to My Critics," op. cit., 282.
(61) See The Idea of the Good, 34.
(62) "Science and Philosophy," in Reason in the Age of Science, 6.
(63) "Theory, Technology, Praxis," in Jason Gaiger and Nicholas Walker, trs., The Enigma of Health (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 22.
(64) "Notes on Planning for the Future," op. cit., 179-180.
(65) "Reflections on my Philosophical Journey," in Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), 17.