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Philosophy of Interpretation

The Fragility of Freedom Gadamerian

Koula Mellos

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ABSTRACT: This paper examines the nature of freedom in Hang-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics. It focuses on the last section of Wahrheit und Methode advancing the hypothesis that Gadamer’s model of understanding is derived from his particular appropriation of the Platonic notion of the beautiful which poses a passive interpretative posture toward the object of understanding and deprives the activity of interpretation the essential creative quality of freedom. I argue that to the extent that the object of understanding presents itself as immediate revelation of truth, the interpreting subject is reduced to a mere acknowledger of truth as opposed to a creative producer.

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Opponents of teleological ontology and of philosophy of history have been attracted to hermeneutics as a more congenial perspective for the exploration of such issues as truth and right, knowledge and action, necessity and freedom. The appealing claim of hermeneutics is that universality need not be and should not be absolute as an ultimate end of a process of actualisation. In the view of hermeneutics, a determinate universal converts freedom to necessity however much consciousness may mediate activity. That is, even though activity engenders change, consciousness is more an expression of necessity in relation to the absolute than an expression of freedom. Indeed, in this view, teleological mediation between freedom and necessity is no reconciliation but rather a subsumption of freedom by necessity. To rehabilitate freedom, hermeneutics opts for a non-teleological history with an open, indeterminate future. The departure from teleology finds a new non-essentialist ground for truth and universality, namely, mutual understanding.

In this paper, I examine Gadamer’s notion of mutual understanding, fusion of horizons, to assess the place reserved for freedom. I focus on Gadamer’s appropriation of the Platonic notion of the beautiful as the model of understanding and I argue that such a notion of understanding poses a passive interpretive posture toward the object of understanding, i.e. tradition or contemporary alien culture. In this model of understanding, I shall argue, the latter presents itself as immediate revelation of truth and thereby deprives interpretation of the productive quality which Gadamer would like to attribute it. I begin by providing some theoretical background to Gadamer’s notion of understanding noting its debt to Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology. I then proceed to examine Gadamer’s appeal to the Platonic dialectic of the beautiful as a model for understanding which highlights, to my mind and as I noted, the latent passivity of Gadamerian interpretation.

1. Gadamer’s notion of understanding

In Wahrheit und Methode, Gadamer wages many theoretical battles at the same time. He challenges the dualism of modern epistemology, the teleology of Hegelian-Marxist historicism and, in a more conciliatory way, the verstehen historicism of Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Hermeneutics can gain no insights into the fundamental questions of philosophy such as truth and right from epistemology. Gadamer objects — as do all critics of epistemology including the Frankfurt School theorists — to the association of abstract method with truth. Methodological procedural rules that remain indifferent to the nature of the object of which knowledge is sought cannot but do violence to the object rather than provide an insight into its truth. This formalism reduces the meaning of truth to no more than techne, or in other words, technological control.

Neither does the teleological ontology of Hegelian and Marxist historicism satisfy Gadamer. It does correctly acknowledge the inviolable nature of the historically constituted object but, at one fell swoop, cancels out this insight by situating it in a dialectic of identity and setting it on the teleological course of achieving an absolute objective. This teleology, for Gadamer, reduces history to a non-history since the end is already inscribed in the process.

To Gadamer’s mind, hermeneutics as historical understanding has more to learn from the 19th Century verstehen notion of understanding but not without first sorting out some of its fundamental weaknesses. Gadamer expresses his reservation about the structure of verstehen in which he detects a latent epistemological dualism. Verstehen poses an empathetic model of understanding on which both Schleiermacher and Dilthey build their accounts. In this model, the relation of empathy between the knowing subject (interpreter) and alter is posed as the intersubjective relation of understanding, but mistakenly so, for Gadamer. The empathetic relation assumes that understanding is an internal psychological phenomenon and that the psychic state is externalised through empathy and counts as objective fact uncontaminated by the subjectivity of the knowing subject who is extinguished — in a manner of speaking — in the relation of empathy. The dualism of subject and object — knowing subject and object of knowledge — which marks modern epistemology recurs in this model of verstehen and hence fails to satisfy the objective of understanding.

Hermeneutics as intersubjective understanding had to await Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology for which knowledge and understanding has a whole new sense. Here, understanding is ontological as the fundamental mode of being-in-the-world, Dasein. Understanding, conceived ontologically, is what we are as distinct from what we do in seeking knowledge which is the epistemological conception. The activity of interpretation which is integral to understanding consists in rendering explicit or bringing to the fore what is already there as an attribute of the object and not in the application of subjective categories in virtue of which the object becomes intelligible. Again, in ontological terms, interpretation is a mode of being not a way of doing. We are always interpreting insofar as we are.

In this Heideggerian-Gadamerian phenomenological perspective, language becomes the encompassing structure of being. To be-in-the-world is to be in a linguistically constituted world. Rather than being a tool for understanding the world, language is the framework of meaning in which we live our lives. We enter an already meaning-laden world — so constituted by language — which we constantly interpret and reinterpret. This, for Gadamer, is what it means to be human. The interpretative mode of being alludes to the Gadamerian claim that language is a porous, open structure such that in understanding through interpretation we are not applying universal categories in particular situations as if the relation of understanding were one of subsumption of the particular by the universal. Such is the epistemological relation which Gadamer finds to be ahistorical and, as such, faulty. Rather, the relation of interpretative understanding is rather a relation of participation in (as distinct from constitutive of) a process (1) of meaning production which Gadamer calls, ‘tradition.’

Gadamer wishes to associate participation with creativity which is what — he feels — distinguishes hermeneutics from epistemology and from teleology. We participate in language as interpretive beings, i.e. rendering intelligible and meaningful ‘for us’ what seems incoherent, incomprehensible or alien to us. The activity consists in appealing to the familiar to make sense of the unfamiliar or distant. In this regard, there is never question of stepping outside of language for getting a better view of the world, for, quite simply, there is no world outside language. As Gadamer puts it, ‘[n]ot only is the world ‘world’ only insofar as it comes into language, but language, too, has its real being only in the fact that the world is re-presented within it ...language has no independent life apart from the world that comes to language within it." (2) Interpretive understanding is always the mediation between the familiar and unfamiliar in language.

But the hermeneutics of interpretative understanding is no simple linguistic theory. The claims about language are claims of theoretical and practical import: knowledge and ethics, truth and right action. Hence the mediation of the familiar and unfamiliar is determined not by subjective will nor by divine providence. Gadamer seeks a mediation that would neither attribute unilateral determining properties to identity nor to otherness, to the self nor the other, to the present nor the past. Both sides, Gadamer wishes to claim, are participants in understanding or fusion of horizons. He does not wish an active self and a passive other nor a passive self and an active other nor even an equal activation of both sides if, by that, we mean an active will.

Though both the self and the other participate, they do so not as purposive producers but as players of a game whose actual play and outcome neither participant can know nor anticipate in advance. It is participation in an event that happens to us, an occurrence, rather than a process that we determine before hand either unilaterally or in community. We do not pose a higher truth at the outset of the encounter. We do not posit determinate objectives and seek appropriate and efficient means to achieve them. Rather, the event or happening consists in our being drawn out of our parochialism onto a higher truth rather than our drawing ourselves out of our parochialism to achieve a higher truth. In this way, Gadamer denies teleology any truth value reserving truth, rather, for phenomenological ontology. Truth is not determinate production, it is revelation. The revealed truth is the meaning of tradition.

Alan How accepts this account of truth and interprets this revelation as being dialogical. "To understand (...) means to find oneself grounded interpretively in language tradition of meaning that reveals itself by speaking through us and to us in the manner of a dialogue." (3) This reading implies considerable creativity for the interpreting self releasing it from some of the weight of tradition. This would be welcomed by critics of ideology who continue to suspect that tradition is a carrier of domination. I shall argue, in the next section, that Gadamer’s own account of revelation departs from any dialogical model we may wish to associate with it. It appeals to the Platonic and neo-Platonic notion of the beautiful for a sense of revelation which, as we shall see, reserves very little creativity for the interpreting self requiring rather the affirmation of tradition.

2. Understanding as analogous to the beautiful

In the final section of Wahrheit und Methode, Gadamer gives a clear statement of his hermeneutics. (4) Its importance for his notion of understanding has been overlooked and deserves extensive analysis. Here, I shall present only a schematic account. In the chapter entitled, "Language as Horizon of Hermeneutic Ontology," Gadamer engages us in his reading of the Platonic metaphysics of the beautiful where he draws an analogy between the beautiful, on the one hand, and mutual understanding, on the other. In the beautiful he finds the unique ontological structure of immediate identity between the universal and the particular. In this case the universal is the idea of the beautiful and the particular is the appearance of the beautiful or, in other words, a particular beautiful object manifesting itself as such. " The idea of the beautiful is truly present, whole and undivided, in what is beautiful." (5) To put it another way, that which is essential to the beautiful is immediate self-presentation. Gadamer claims the same structure of immediate identity between the universal and the particular for understanding.

The mode of being of understanding linguistically constituted meaning is analogous to the mode of being of the beautiful as self-presentation. Language brings meaning into being not as something that existed before nor as something partial nor as something essentially different from its phenomenal form. Rather, language brings meaning into being as pure immediacy. The constituted meaning is identical with the object created. The ontological truth of meaning and of the beautiful, then, consists in self-presentation. "What presents itself in this way is not different from itself in presenting itself. It is not one thing for itself and another for others." (6)

How may we interpret this claim about language? Does it not say that in the very constitution of meaning, language brings an object into being whose truth is its very meaning? It has a meaning, a truth, in-itself which is identical with the meaning for us since our world of meaning is constituted in and by language. This in-itself meaning is a self-presentation. Interpretation which is essentially a rendering ‘for us’ the ‘in-itself’ would require no great creativity or dialogue. Interpretation would constitute no new meaning (in dialogue with the meaning object) but rather would acknowledge the object as it presents itself with is own truth. The ‘in-itself’ prevails over the ‘for us’, or to put it another way, the in-itself determines our understanding of it. The hermeneutic experience is an encounter with such self-presentation. Gadamer could not be clearer about this. Speaking of texts as self-presentation of tradition, he contends that "understanding, does not consist in a technical virtuosity of ‘understanding’ everything written. Rather, it is a genuine experience, i.e. an encounter with something that asserts itself as truth." (7)

If this interpretation of the analogy between the beautiful and understanding is tenable, the ‘in-itself’ of the object meaning cannot but prevail over the ‘for us’ of interpretation. But even if we grant that interpretation is not mere passive reproduction of (past) meaning but creative production of (present) meaning, the input of the present (interpreter) would never be equal to that of the past (meaning object). True, Gadamer attempts to make interpretation a historical activity. Identity (of the interpreter) is the ontologically and historically given condition for understanding. It is recognizing and acknowledging otherness in the sense that the historical, linguistic rootedness of the interpreter, the particular horizon, provides a productive base for interpreting otherness, i.e. the past or alien culture. Gadamer would not wish that the identity of the interpreting self be absorbed by the otherness (of the meaning object) nor that otherness be absorbed by self-identity. Indeed, horizon fusion is no unity. Gadamer wishes to claim that the highest truth consists in the openness of self-identity to otherness in an indeterminate historical process of a fluid plurality of cultural expression. This process, however and as I have attempted to show,cannot avoid bearing the weight of the past, however much tradition reveals itself as diversity and irreducible plurality of meaning.

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(1) To the extent that the term process is identified with teleology as an ends oriented unified activity, it is inappropriate here. Gadamer uses the term tradition to convey the notion of openness of production and transmission with no determinable ultimate finality.

(2) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, J.C.B.Mohr (Paul Seibeck) Tübingen, 1960, trans. Sheed and Ward, Truth and Method, The Seabury Press, 1975, p. 401.

(3) Alan R. How, "Dialogue as Productive Limitation in Social Theory: The Habermas-Gadamer Debate", in Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 11, no. 2, 1980, p. 134.

(4) Georg Gadamer, "Language as Horizon of a Hermeneutic Ontology", in Truth and Method, op. cit., 397ff.

(5) Ibid., p. 438.

(6) Ibid., p. 443.

(7) Ibid., p. 445. The emphasis is mine.

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