Monday, March 26, 2012

The Task of Hermeneutics as Philosophy

The subject of this topic belongs to both philosophy and to hermeneutics. Concepts are one of the distinctive features of hermeneutics. Philosophy first entered Western culture in the form of concepts. The concept, which very often presents itself as something strange and demanding, must begin to speak if it is to be really grasped. This article is therefore about “not only from word to concept but likewise from concept to word”.
            How did it come about that at the same time the Greek city-state culture found itself, conceptual thinking arose in Greek culture? This conceptual thinking has streamed out over the globe right down to the present day. We call this kind of thinking for science. And it started with Euclidean geometry. With precision one could logically prove things that nobody doubted, yet which nevertheless required the very highest intellectual effort for their proof. This success in proving represents an intellectual heroic deed that moved human thought for the first time beyond all knowledge based on experience (Erfarungswissen) and founded what is now called science (Wissenschaft). This powerful capacity of reason is truly a miracle of numbers and geometry that grounds the enormous edifice of mathematics.
Gadamer and Heidegger as young men
            If we assume that science had its birth in Greece and it was from the Greeks that we inherited our thinking and reflection about the possibility of knowledge as such, then Gadamer goes further to pose the next question: What does knowing (Wissen) signify for us? Gadamer finds the answer in the words that Socrates received from the Delphic oracle: that no human being then living was wiser than he.
            Plato has shown what this wisdom consists of, namely knowing about not knowing. It is the manner by which we seek, to comprehend the other person, the unknown, the not-knowing of our true place in the world. Gadamer asks how this mathematizing capacity of the Greeks, this logical power, this taking shape of the most speakable of all languages manage to gain prominence throughout the world? He says that this question brings us nearer the theme “word and concept”. Science has taught us more and more about what a very short episode humanity represents within the evolution of the universe. Our fate will be decided by how well the world that bears the stamp of science, and that was philosophically expressed through the world of concepts, will be able to bring itself into harmony with the equally deep insights into the destiny of humanity that have come to expression, with cultures that are completely strange to us.
            How have we gotten ourselves in this situation. Our written heritage dos not start with philosophy but with the epic. We experience this when see how the concept suddenly began to speak – speaking suddenly from Greek city-state cultures to the whole Mediterranean world – when, embedded in the lines of a verse text, it uttered the question, ti to on – what is being? What is this we call nothingness? Plato`s question developed out of metaphysics, which through Aristotle finally came to be accepted throughout the world and left its imprint on two thousand year of Western thought, until from out of it in the seventeenth century modern science emerged, as well as the modern sciences of experience and mathematics.
            Gadamer reminds us of Hegel who saw himself faced with the philosophical task of gathering together the new “sciences” and everything else that did not merge with science, such as metaphysics and religion, and thereby to raise them up into a unitary whole of an encompassing concept. The modern sciences of experience, on the one hand, with their mathematical instrumentalization, and the Socratic thinking that constantly questions things, on the other, seeking the Good with an attitude of not-knowing-these are two ways of experiencing reality that do not seem to go together.
            Hegel sought to make persuasive a reconciliation between the truth of the sciences, the truth of metaphysics, and that of the Christian religion. For Hegel, this synthesis was not just a matter of mastering certain areas of knowledge with the help of abstraction and measurement. It involved those forms of knowing or forms of questioning that do not let go of us, such as when we stand before works of art or when we touched by poetic creations.
            The “scientific” ideal has absolutized itself today. One terms the study of law the science of law and the study of art the science of art. Earlier, the study of art was called the history of art. The study of literature today is called the science of literature, when earlier it was called the history of literature. What the earlier term signified was that from the beginning one assumed that one cannot “know” literature in the same sense that one obtains “knowledge” through measurement and mathematics following the model of the natural sciences. A quite different capacity was required for this kind of knowledge.
            Social sciences have certainly applied mathematical methods in their historically developed forms of methodical-critical research, but Gadamer believes that they are also guided and determined by other things: historical models (Vorbilder), experience, strokes of fate, and in any case by a different kind of exactness from that in mathematical physics. In the natural sciences one speaks of the “precision” of mathematizing. But the natural precision attained by the application of mathematics to living situations ever as great as the precision attained by the ear of the musician who is tuning his or her instrument finally reaches a point of satisfaction? Are there not quite different forms of precision, forms that do not consist in the application of rules or in the use of an apparatus, but rather in a grasp of what is right that does go beyond this? But hermeneutics is not a doctrine of methods for the humanities and social sciences but rather a basic insight into what thinking and knowing mean for human beings in their practical life, even if one makes use of scientific methods.
            A distinctive capacity is required in human beings in order for them to make the right use of human knowledge. Plato asked: What really constitutes the true statesman? A quite specific talent: a certain instinctive feeling for balance. Plato says there are two different possible ways of measuring, and both appear to be indispensable. In the first one, one goes after things with a ruler in order to make them available and controllable, like the meterruler in Paris that all other metric measurements must fallow. Here one is clearly concerned with what the Greeks called poson quantity. The second consists of striking the “right measure”, finding what is appropriate. We experience this, for example, in the wonder of harmonious tones sounding together, or in the harmonious feeling of well-being that we call “health”. This concerns what the Greeks called poion, quality.
            Gadamer has written about illness in The Enigma of Health. Illness in itself is certainly a threat that one has to be on guard against. When one becomes ill, a doctor with knowledge and skill is needed, and one hopes that the doctor can bring it under control. Health, on the other hand, is clearly something quite different, something we do not observe or control in the same way. Rather, it is something we follow – like a path, for example. When we are on this path we have the feeling that now we are headed in the right direction. The path under our feet becomes a way.
            There are, of course, many other instances in addition to becoming physically healthy that Gadamer registers as a clear contrast to the ideal of scientific governance and control. We understand the term “scientific rigor” (Wissenschaftlichkeit) to mean objectivity, and it is surely a good thing for us to bring under critical control the subjective presuppositions that are in play when one observes anything. Scientific results must in principle be clearly understandable and repeatable by anyone. This is what makes the idea of objective knowledge possible. Gadamer finds this fully in order.
            One should although not forget what the word “object” means in German. It means “standing against” (Gegenstand), that is, resisting (Widerstand). In the sphere of illness and health, however, we are dealing with a knowing (Wissen) that does not simply rule over and controls objects. For with regard to health, we cannot simply reconstruct the way of Nature. Rather, we must be content to break the resistance of the illness and to help Nature prevail using her own secret way. To do this requires the art of the doctor to find the right measure.
            This is not just science (Wissenschaft) but rather a different kind of knowing that with its own fulfilment withdraws, one might say. This is different from art in the creative and formative arts and also in the literary arts. But one finds something akin to it in how these arts are carried out, and this marks a kind of boundary between it and what one associates with the objectivity of science. In medicine as in other arts one is concerned with much more than the mere applications of rules.
            Truth and Method begins with considerations with art, and not with “science” or even with the human sciences (die Geistwiaaenschaft). Even within the human sciences it is art that brings the basic questions of human being to our awareness in such a unique way – indeed, in such a way that no resistance or objection against it arises. An artwork is irrefutable. A poem, for example, compels through the way it says what it says. The poem is. Nobody would ever object to listening to a recitation by saying that he or she already knew the poem. One must open him- or herself up to a work of art. If one just claims to be an expert in the field, who always knows it better, one is like a “philistine”.
            In all the sciences Gadamer knows something about, he says there comes a moment in which something is there, something one should not forget and cannot forget. This is not a matter of mastering an area of study. The scientized historical method of understanding works of pictorial art continues to gain importance in academic circles. This should not, however, be the only permissible approach. It is Gadamers belief and hope that a balance between both forms of knowledge is attainable, a balance that accepts both the scientific and the artistic sides.
            Plato also says in the Statesman that both kinds of measuring are required – the measuring that measures, and the “right measure” of that one is trying to find. In science one is concerned with a knowing that breaks down resistance, and only in the end does it require art (Kunstfertigkeit) rather than science. This second sort of knowing supports itself, carries within itself a capacity of its own that involves itself. Gadamer thinks it is not permissible that one form should be the whole answer: one form of measuring is not more important than the other. Rather, both forms are important.
            Gadamer gives example of this “miracle of balance” which he himself experienced as a child, learning to ride a bicycle. He had a somewhat lonely childhood received a bicycle to keep him occupied. He had to learn to ride it all by himself. There was a little hill in his backyard, and there is where he tried to teach himself how to ride it. He climbed up the hill and after a few failed attempts made a great discovery: as long as he held onto the handlebars as tight as he could, he always tipped over! But suddenly he stopped this and it happened as if by itself.
            We must all create a balance if we want to steer toward and reach our goals. It is virtually unbelievable that a little less pressure in holding onto the handlebars, even just a little bit less, enables one to hold the bicycle in balance and to steer it. But if you exert just a little to much pressure, then suddenly nothing goes right. Gadamer applies this experience to all our behaviour, conditioned as it is by modern forms of life where we are governed by rules, prescriptions, and orders.
            It is essential to recognize all the varied forms of human life and the expressions of their particular worldviews. In doing so, we find ourselves in the realm of hermeneutics. This is what Gadamer calls the art of understanding.
            But what is understanding? Understanding, whatever else it may mean, does not entail that one agrees with whatever or whomever one “understands”. Understanding means that one is able to weigh and consider fairly what the other person thinks! One recognizes that the other person could be right in what he og she says or actually wants to say. Understanding is not just simply mastering something that stands opposite of oneself, whether it is the other person of the whole objective world in general. Understanding can of course be understanding in order to master or control. Man`s will to rule over nature is natural and it makes our survival possible. Nut it remains true that ruling and the will to power are not everything.
            Understanding always means first of all: “oh, now I understand what you want!” This does not mean that the other person is right or that you will be judged to be correct. Only when we understand another human being will we be able to communicate with one another at all.
It is easy to claim that humankind today is in a desperate situation. Human beings threaten to destroy themselves, and everyone can become aware of this. Gadamer says that while European civilization has admirably brought to full development the culture of science with its technical and organizational applications, it has for the past three centuries neglected the law of balance. Is it not the case in all the questions we face, that the tasks require a consciousness possessed of far-sightedness and carefulness, and also an openness to each other, if we are to carry out the tasks that will shape our future, tasks whose accomplishment is necessary for peace and reconciliation? Gadamer is of the opinion that with  all our technical and scientific progress we still have not learned well enough how to live with each other and with our own progress.
Hermeneutics as philosophy is not some kind of methodological dispute with other sciences, epistemologies, or such things. Hermeneutics asserts something nobody today can deny: we occupy a moment in history in which we must strenuously use the full powers of our reason, and not just keep doing science alone. Without our bringing concepts to speak and without a common language, we will not be able to find the words that will reach other persons.
It is true that the way goes “from word to concept”, but we must also be able to move “from concept to word”, if we wish to reach the other. Only if we accomplish both will we gain a reasonable understanding of each other. Only in this way, too, will we possess the possibility of so holding ourselves back that we can allow the other person`s views to be recognized. Gadamer believes it is important to become so absorbed in something that one forgets oneself in it – and this is one of the great blessings of the experience of art. In the end this is one of the basic conditions for human beings to be able to live together at all in a human way.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1994). From Word to Concept: The Task of Hermeneutics as Philosophy, in Bruce Krajewski (red), 2004, Gadamer`s Repercussions. Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkely: University of California Press, p 1-12. 

Original title: Vom Wort zum Begriff. Der Aufgabe der Hermeneutik als Philosophie. Appeared first in a volume of the Bamberger Hegelwoche series, Odo Marquard (red), 1995, Menschliche Endlichkeit und Kompensation, Bamberg: Verlag Fränkisher Tag, p.111-124. The text dates back to an address given in the Bamberger Hegelwochen of 1994, an occasion on which Gadamer received an honorary doctorate. This English version is translated from German by Richard E. Palmer.

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