Who Are We and Who Am I? Gadamer's Communal Ontology as Palimpsest

Article excerpt

As a convention of academic writing, "we" means sometimes literally group authorship, or sometimes merely its pretence; sometimes it implies a community of scholars or a group of adherents, the amorphous crowd of author and readers; more often it is just a received convention, one empty stylistic choice among others. In public address "we" can be a genuine summons to community, a calculating construction, or simply a weak pronominal place-marker. In certain cases, the convention is tied to real philosophical commitments, as is the case with Hans-Georg Gadamer. He insists that his philosophical writing is a secondary form, a weak reflection of his life-long conversations with scholars and students. The difference between speech and writing was for him formed not only by political experience, "but also by my personal experience, my difficulties with writing. I am a dialogical being ... When I held seminars, I myself was present from the first day: I had a real talent for listening and replying and believe that that remains my talent" (1992, p. 66). The plural form of address, the "we" of his academic prose, is an evocation of the conversational community which lies at the heart of his thought. If, in one sense, reflective philosophy (from Descartes to Ricoeur) is an effort to understand what it means to say "I" (ego), if Levinas raises to its highest pitch the moral and ontological force of the personal form "you" (tu), Gadamer's thought might be characterized as an effort to understand what it means to say "we" (wir). The arts of understanding, interpretation and application are the practice and achievement of a community. Even Habermas (1983) characterizes Gadamer this way: "... Gadamerian hermeneutics highlights the linguistic intersubjectivity that unites all communicatively socialized individuals from the outset. It stubbornly pursues the question of the form and content of `the solidarity that unites all the speakers of a language'" (p. 197). It is Gadamer's principal thrust that the ontological event of being is apart from subjective origins, and in its deepest nature communal. It is the central pillar of his attack against Enlightenment rationalism, Cartesian dualism, Romantic subjectivism, and scientific objectivism.

In moving from I to we, Gadamer places front and center the vexed issue of the social. It is a question that has become both enriched and muddied by the confluence of intellectual traditions that characterizes scholarship now. Are societies founded on the relation of master and slave, or mother and child? Are we tied by philia, agape, or eros? Are we a community of the gaze, the body, or the fray? Is the relation contractual, pragmatic, or preconscious? As an example of the conundrum, the eminent scholar Todorov (1996) recently suggested a schema of social forms that immediately looks too simple. His theory posits a fundamental historical shift from an elective we to a constitutive we. While the ancients, specifically Aristotle and Cicero, regard human sympathy as the attraction of like for like, an innovation in thought dating from Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Hegel recognizes the constitutive role of the other in a relation of complementarity. It is Rousseau who says "Our most gentle existence is relative and collective, and our true me is not entirely within us" (cited in Todorov, 1996, p. 99). Todorov's ancient/modern dichotomy compresses numerous alternative views and interpretations from the complex skein of European social thought, as Wokler (1996) points out in a response to Todorov: "Why not mention ancient, medieval, or modern conceptions of cooperation, confraternity, or the division of labor, each giving rise to diverse notions of social recognition, civic harmony, or political hierarchy? What of the doctrines of doux commerce, which in the Enlightenment were to make competition and eventually capitalism seem so much more attractive to their adherents than primitive notions of spiritual or economic self-sufficiency? …