Janko Stojanow





Gadamer's hermeneutics 

- the 'philosophical' road to nowhere 





Gadamer acknowledges in the foreword to the second edition of his magnum opus Truth and Method that it has found admirers and critics. Given the fact that what his admirers say is well-known as well as the fact that I am determined to be among his unwavering critics, I will try to explain why this philosophy is spiritually alien to me and to what I think philosophy is about. For this reason, I will argue that having neither a method nor a principle, Gadamer's phenomenological hermeneutics is absolutely powerless. Lacking a clear beginning, a clear absolute principle capable of organising a true philosophy, philosophical hermeneutics cannot attain to its desired result and, consequently, it cannot supply the truth and the method the reader of his book is bound to strive for. 

Gadamer certainly feels the need to find a unique hermeneutical method and he must have been appalled by the fact that no method can be defined and demonstrated within the boundaries of hermeneutics since a true philosophy has the task to show, to find and develop a true method. Unfortunately enough for Gadamer, it is beyond doubt that hermeneutical philosophy cannot propose such a method at all. In his Truth and Method not only does he express the need for methodological leadership of hermeneutical understanding of effective history, but he also tries to prove at any cost the universal aspect of hermeneutics. Having written his book in 1960, he had another 42 years until his death in 2002 to apply his very own philosophical hermeneutics and carry out into practice a hermeneutically oriented Philosophy of History. He did not even try and for good reasons. Had he tried, he would have come to the conclusion that being absolutely unable to provide the fundamental principle on which philosophy can be founded as well as an absolute method having the power to develop the science of Philosophy, his philosophical hermeneutics is ineffective and incapable of providing a proper interpretation of human history.   

I will deal with the fact that not only his book is a manifestation of a lack of philosophical principle, but it also gives abundant evidence of Gadamer's complete inability to understand Hegelí speculative method. For the needs of his approach to interpretation Gadamer heavily uses the dialogical Socratic way of asking questions and answers presenting it as perfect Platonic dialectics and the very best that dialectics can do for us. As a matter of fact, dialectics cannot be learned in this way. We learn it when we read Hegel, not Plato. Taking into consideration the fact that Gadamer deals with Hegel's method in the very end of the book - especially in the last two sections, whose subheadings are titled respectively "Language as medium and its speculative structure" and "The universal aspect of hermeneutics," - I will focus on analysing this part of his book.

According to Gadamer from its historical origin as a theological and a legal hermeneutics, the problem of hermeneutics goes beyond the limits that the concept of method sets to modern science. He claims that the phenomenon of the understanding of texts and their correct interpretation is not merely a concern of science, but is obviously part of the total human experience of the world. Despite the fact that the hermeneutic phenomenon is concerned with knowledge and with truth, for him it is basically not a problem of method at all. 

Like Wittgenstein, Gadamer argues that there is no thought prior to language. Much as language makes our understanding possible, it limits the latter as well. According to him the mode of realisation of understanding is interpretation. Gadamer is keen on demonstrating that our concepts are fundamentally linguistic. It is not surprising that he does not aim at any method or technique for achieving understanding or arriving at truth the reason being that for him the process of understanding never comes to an end. In fact, no methodology is possible within the boundaries of hermeneutics devoid of any philosophical principles. Sadly, Gadamer never goes beyond the boundaries of hermeneutics. True, Gadamerian interpreter wills to understand the text, but it is the interpreter's own horizon that is decisive. Despite the fact that the interpreter tries to truly make one's own what the text says, his personal standpoint as well as opinions affect the quality of his interpretation.

In case of absence of philosophic mind in the Gadamerian interpreter, however, there is nothing to compensate for it. For hermeneutics is absolutely incapable of providing him with a method of studying both philosophy and history; it can only help him move along the road to nowhere. Hegel says that he who interprets has to have the Idea, a higher method in order to be able to interpret. According to him, since "the observer must bring with him the Notion of the subject in order to see it in its phenomenal aspect and in order to expose the object faithfully to view, we need not wonder at there being so many dull histories of Philosophy in which the succession of its systems is For Hegel the notion of true dialectics is that it shows the necessary movement of pure notions, it is the cognition of absolute essence in pure notions. The job of an authentically great mind is to philosophise, not to interpret. We have to have trust in the infinite power of the Absolute to develop the science of Philosophy as well as the philosophy of History. 

There is no doubt about the speculative nature of language. However, it does not mean everyone could make a good use of it automatically in their everyday lives. I will argue that Gadamer fully deserves Hegel's commentary on Dietrich Tiedmann's book  Der geist der Speculativen Philosophie: "The whole work is a melancholy example of how a learned professor can occupy his whole life with the study of speculative philosophy, and yet have no idea at all of speculation." (p. 112) Being unaware of Hegel's statement  that the result of a given philosophy is nothing else but its developed beginning,  Gadamer reveals once again his fundamental lack of truly speculative knowledge saying that "hermeneutics cannot have any problem of a beginning, as the problem of the beginning of science is found in Hegel's logic. ... It is quite different with historically effected consciousness, in which hermeneutical experience reaches its consummation. It knows about the absolute openness of the effect of meaning in which it shares." (p. 472 ) Yet Gadamer goes on to say that all interpretation is speculative. The undeniable fact that he is not conscious of what is genuinely speculative in-and-for-itself speaks volumes about how rare is nowadays the kind of philosopher who is immaculately trained in speculative dialectics. 

Gadamer's Truth and Method is definitely a manifestation of the abstract thinking of the Understanding; it is not the result of the work of philosophical Reason. He reflects on language, i.e. the material of thinking but not the thinking itself. He does not take into account that it is thanks to thinking itself that language is developed and readily available for the interpreter. Hegel, who knew better than anyone else what is true and the true in philosophy, is perfectly right to claim that "If there are different Notions of the science of Philosophy, it is the true Notion alone that puts us in a position to understand the writings of philosophers who have worked in the knowledge of it. For in thought, and particularly in speculative thought, comprehension means something quite different from understanding the grammatical sense of the words alone, and also from understanding them in the region of ordinary conception only." (p. xlv) Contrary to Hegel, for whom in Philosophy the Absolute must be in the form of thought, hermeneutics pays attention to language. The aim of philosophy, however, is to be neither bare understanding nor arbitrary interpretation, for thought as such is the absolute ground of everything else. It is undeniable that the understanding of the hermeneutical reader is of no importance at all. 

Gadamer wants to legitimate philosophically the phenomenon of understanding texts and the correct interpretation of what has been understood in the light of the importance that contemporary philosophy attaches to the history of philosophy. Furthermore, according to him being that can be understood is language. Nonetheless, he himself is aware of the fact that hermeneutic universalism is one-sided "in its contents , since it lacks a critical principle in relation to tradition." (p. xxxvii) It is a pleasure to see Gadamer acknowledging to himself the fact that hermeneutics is on the road to disaster. And rightly so. The task of a true philosopher is to develop the Science of Philosophy and interpret the history of Philosophy from a higher standpoint. Unfortunately, Gadamer does not have the tool to understand, since only a higher standpoint can be this tool. As a matter of fact, the title of his book should read No method, No truth

Gadamer treats hermeneutics as "a historiology that could serve as a methodological organon for the human sciences." (p. 197) For him "the principle that one must understand an author better than he understands himself" (p. 195) is a principle of philosophical critique. Nonetheless, Gadamer is a far cry from the standpoint that to understand a philosopher better than he understands himself means to develop him, not just interpret. For a "philosopher" who concentrates on interpreting the texts of these great thinkers instead of developing the science of Philosophy, who does not have the Will of the Absolute Rational Will, could not expect to make a real headway in philosophy. But what could we expect from the new hermeneutically critical consciousness according to which "all responsible philosophising which takes the habits of thought and language built up in the individual in his communication with his environment and places them before the forum of the historical tradition to which we all belong." (p. XXV)

It is essential to say that Gadamer's claim for the universality of hermeneutics and, therefore, his entire Truth and Method stands or falls on the model of Platonic dialogue, which proceeds by way of question and answer. According to Gadamer, Plato manifests the hermeneutical phenomenon in a specific way, for he also recognises the priority of the question in all knowledge. Moreover, Gadamer is keen on proving that the primacy of dialogue with its relation of question and answer is to be found in Hegel's dialectics as a philosophical method. Gadamer claims that "When Hegel sets himself the task of making the abstract determinations of thought fluid and subtle, this means dissolving and remolding logic into concrete language, and transforming the concept into the meaningful power of the word that questions and answers - a magnificent reminder, even if unsuccessful, of what dialectics really was and is. Hegel's dialectics is a monologue of thinking that tries to carry out in advance what matures little by little in every genuine dialogue." (p. 369) The supreme inaccuracy of this statement is shocking. The living Spirit of Hegelian philosophy cannot be revealed by a spirit, which is totally alien to it. Consequently, Gadamer's very own interpretation fails to leave the kingdom of the Understanding in which it resides, and succeed in attaining to the highest sphere of self-cognising Reason, within which Philosophy proper resides. 

According to Gadamer, the philosopher now has to become a philologist. While there is no doubt that biblical hermeneutics is necessary because of its literary character and prophecies which have to be interpreted, the same does not hold true for the Science of Philosophy. There is a world of difference between literary criticism and  biblical texts, on the one hand, and true scientific philosophy, on the other hand. Yet willing to make his "philosophical" hermeneutics a universal ontological structure, Gadamer is firmly determined to achieve it. In spite of his claim that he is essentially influenced by Hegel's philosophy, it is fully justifiable for Gadamer to base his hermeneutics on Platonic dialectics rather than the Hegelian one since, as a matter of fact, his knowledge of Hegel's philosophy is highly superficial. For this reason, I will thoroughly examine and deal with the variety of Gadamer's opinions concerning his understanding of some of the most important passages of Hegelís philosophy as a well-developed science of philosophy. One cannot but notice Gadamerís love to antiquity, i.e. he does not deal sufficiently well with classical German philosophy. Bearing in mind that at one point in his scholarly career, Gadamer is said to have prided himself on the fact that he only read books that were at least two thousand years old, it comes as no surprise that he heavily relies on the Socratic model to draw distinctions between authentic and inauthentic dialogue. 

It is for this reason that there is no wonder why he prefers Plato's notion of dialectics to the Hegelian one. He says: "whoever wants to learn from the Greeks always has to learn from Hegel first. Both his dialectics of the determinations of thought and his dialectics of the forms of knowledge explicitly repeat the total mediation between thought and being that was formerly the natural element of Greek thought." (p.460) True, Plato was rightly considered by the ancient philosophers to be the the father of dialectics. However, dialectics just began with him and, as a matter of fact, Plato failed to develop it purely on its own account. Hegel, whose speculative dialectics is indisputably unsurpassed for he based it on the method of the absolute form, is right to claim that Plato's "dialectics is still often merely reasoning and that it proceeds from individual points of view and frequently remains without result. On the other hand, Plato's own teaching is directed against this merely reasoning dialectics; yet we see that it gives him trouble properly to show forth the difference. The speculative dialectic which commences with him, is thus the most interesting but also the most difficult part of his work; hence acquaintance is not usually made with it when the Platonic writings are studied." (Volume 2. p. 52-53) Speculative dialectics is difficult for the understanding to grasp. It is for this reason that Gadamer, who is totally incapable of achieving speculative philosophy in its truth and for whom, consequently, speculative dialectics is really mysterious, wants to base his "philosophical" hermeneutics on Plato's dialectic and especially Socratic dialogical form. Nonetheless, Hegel is the philosopher from whom we can learn speculative dialectics if we are serious about studying philosophy. Hegel is certainly better qualified than anybody else to judge the quality of the form of Plato's method. 

In the Introduction of his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer acknowledges the fact that modern philosophy tries to interpret and assimilate its classical heritage being well aware of its own weakness. His philosophical consciousness has every reason to admit the possibility that his own philosophical insight may be inferior to that of Plato or Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant or Hegel. (p. XXII) Furthermore, he acknowledges that "The philosophical endeavour of our day differs from the classical tradition of philosophy in that it is not a direct and unbroken continuation of it." (p. XXIV) That explains it all. This is a statement of supreme importance for it reveals the secret of the incredible powerlessness of hermeneutical philosophy.

Stanley Rosen, an outstanding American Professor of Philosophy, in his highly polemical book against postmodernism - Hermeneutics as politics, - claims that "in the process of expanding its extent two basic sources of its significance, God and Man, gradually have long since disappeared, taking away with them the Universe and leaving us with our loquacity, which we decided to call a philosophy of language, a linguistic philosophy or something like this. If nothing is real, reality is nothing: there is no difference between the the lines of the text and the empty space between them." (p.208) The quality of Prof. Rosen's critique is marvellous. Gadamer himself is profoundly aware of the fact that 20th century philosophy - let alone his own, - has abandoned asking the great questions of life. In the end of the foreword to the second edition of his magnum opus he admits that it started dealing with "what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct here and now." (p. 32) Gadamer obviously would have expressed the spirit of modern philosophy better if he had not failed to add that it deals with what is politically correct. Nevertheless, he admits the one-sidedness of his hermeneutic universalism, which - even for him, -  "has the truth of a corrective" (p. xxxvii) only and limits "the position of the philosopher in the modern world" (p. xxxviii). For Gadamer the latter cannot want to be granted the privilege to play the role of prophet, of Cassandra, of preacher, or of know-it-all11. (p. xxxviii) The misery of the impoverished philosopher working in the spirit of Gadamerian hermeneutics can hardly be greater. But he certainly deserves his fate if he has willingly accepted to play his Gadamerian role in the world of mere interpretation.

At this point today's rational voluntarist has every right to ask a question of pure voluntaristic pragmatism: Isn't the empty hermeneutical activity like Hegel's Owl of Minerva which comes too late - time and time again after the Absolute Rational Will has already done its great work. For the present ethical and moral World Actuality is what it is not because of the abstract science of Hermeneutics but it is the work of Absolute Rational Will alone. This is the practical criterion of how useful Hermeneutics is. Is it practically applicable? Unlike the Natural Sciences and their applied forms - the industries, the world of Academia has turned its back to the actuality of Absolute Rational Will. Hermeneutics can now only eat the leavings from the feast of the history of the Absolute Spirit. Each particular epoch develops from the previous one, contains the latter in itself as sublated. The self-understanding and willing itself Absolute Rational Will does not have to wait for the hermeneutical scientist, who is hermetically closed within the boundaries of Hermeneutical Ivory Towers to come and act. Each stage of the real development of the Absolute Rational Will is infinitely more important than the work of all excellent hermeneutical scientists in the world. The real historically determined consciousness is no more than a manifestation of the self-realising Absolute Rational Will, which does not have to wait for any interpretation since it and only it is the living process of its own carrying into practice. 


NOTES (To be provided)


Janko Stojanow,

7. 12. 2003, Luban











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