Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). (in Memoriam)

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On March 14, 2002, Hans-Georg Gadamer died in Heidelberg, the city that feted him on his one hundredth birthday two years earlier and the site of the university where he was active for over forty years, from the time he succeeded to Karl Jaspers's chair in 1949 until long after formal retirement in 1968. Born in Marburg on February 11, 1900, the son of a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, Gadamer grew up in Breslau (today: Wroclaw). After a year at the University of Breslau where he was introduced to neo-Kantian transcendental philosophy by Richard Honigswald, Gadamer transferred to Marburg. At Marburg he experienced the ferment of current existentialist and phenomenological ideas, affecting even formerly idealistic and systematic thinkers like Nicolai Hartmann and Paul Natorp, under whom Gadamer completed his dissertation on Plato, Das Wesen der Lust nach den platonischen Dialogen [The Essence of Pleasure according to the Platonic Dialogues], in 1922. The following year he took part in a seminar on the sixth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, conducted in Freiburg by Heidegger. Though Gadamer would not embrace what he regarded as the theological remnants in Heidegger's thinking or its counterpart, the endorsement of Nietzsche's nihilistic prognoses, Heidegger's influence upon him would prove to be profound. From Heidegger he learned, as he himself put it, "the fundamental experience in hermeneutics," namely, the experience of understanding the philosophical tradition's questions as real questions and, indeed, in such a way that they become our own questions.

Heidegger's at once appreciative and critical stance toward Greek philosophy also presented challenges that Gadamer would endeavor to take up. A year after passing the state examination for classical philology in 1927, he submitted his habilitation, the basis for his first book, Platos dialektische Ethik. Phanomenologische Interpretationen zum <> [Plato's Dialectical Ethics: Phenomenological Interpretations of Plato's "Philebus"] (1931). In the 1930s at Marburg, as an adjunct professor (to make a rough American parallel to the German position of Dozent), Gadamer continued his study of Plato, especially Plato's conceptions of mathematics and of the state. For reasons of self-preservation, Gadamer tells us, he largely abandoned the latter studies, with the exception of an interpretation of the Republic in the 1934 essay, "Plato and the Poets," where he argues that the Platonic ideal state has more in common with a Swiftian utopia than political science. ("Platos Staat der Erziehung" [Plato's Educational State], a 1942 piece for a volume on classical philology, is a continuation of the 1934 essay.) The only monograph that appeared during these years of attempting to behave in a politically unobtrusive way--as he put it--was a study of the concept of power in Herder's historical thinking, Volk und Geschichte im Denken Herders [People and History in the Thinking of Herder] (1942).

In 1937 Gadamer attained the rank of professor at Marburg, followed a year later by the offer of a chair in classical philology at Halle, and acceptance of a position as full professor at the University of Leipzig in 1939. After the war Gadamer served as rector at the University of Leipzig (1946-47), before moving to Frankfurt (1947-49) and finally Heidelberg. In 1953, together with Helmut Kuhn, he founded a widely read journal, Philosophische Rundschau. Gadamer took particular pride in his dedication to teaching throughout his career. Not surprisingly, the list of his students reads like a "Who's Who" of German academic philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, a list that includes such luminaries as Walter Schulz, Karlheinz Volkmann-Schluck, Dieter Henrich, Rudiger Bubner, Heinz Kimmerle, Wolfgang Wieland, and Reiner Wiehl (to name only a few).

From the very outset of his career, Gadamer remained convinced that there is a truth in art and the humanities that, while not capable of complete conceptualization, also does not fall prey to a historical relativism as conceptual truth claims do. …