The Ethics of Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Challenge of Religious Transcendence

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Trotzdem immer wieder zum Gespräch fähig zu werden, d.h. auf den anderen zu hören, scheint mir die eigentliche Erhebung des Menschen zur Humanität.

Gadamer, 1972 (GW 2:214)1

Religion is quickly regaining a central role in public life, and as philosophers, especially as philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, we cannot deny it this prominence. Yet at the same time, we recognize the problems of religious fundamentalism and religiously motivated conflict. The convictions concerning ultimate reality held by particular religions, truths that transcend culture and determine the highest good seem to be incompatible with peaceful coexistence.

Given this cultural context, how can philosophical hermeneutics address the current need for intercultural and inter-religious understanding, a need that includes the full recognition of religion as essential part of our humanity? It is well known that this question occupied Gadamer during his final years. He suggested that the task of hermeneutic philosophy, indeed of humanity, is to clear the ground for a global dialogue on the issue of transcendence that fully integrates the great world religions.2 In this essay, I simply want to raise the question whether philosophical hermeneutics is up to this task. In order to do so, I will first establish the ethos of Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy, and then examine Emmanuel Levinas's challenge to this ethos as a case study of the encounter between Gadamer's hermeneutical idea of transcendence and a theologically inspired notion of transcendence.

The Ethics of Philosophical Hermeneutics

Does philosophical hermeneutics have an ethics? By "ethics," I do not mean a detailed moral code but ethics in the Levinasian sense of acknowledging being-with and being-forothers as the starting point and limitation of human consciousness. More precisely, we could ask, how does the hermeneutic ethos, the spirit of hermeneutics and its habit of thinking, deal with the other? And how does it deal with the religious other?

As James Risser asserted in Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy is not accidentally but fundamentally shaped as a philosophy of address by the other: "Understanding comes not from the subject who thinks, but from the other that addresses me."3 We know that two important influences that shaped Gadamer's hermeneutic ethos are Hegel and Heidegger. It would be wrong, however, to reduce his position to either one of their respective philosophies. While Hegel taught him that encountering the other is quintessential to thought, Gadamer also recognizes the ultimately monological nature of Hegel's dialectic.4

Neither does Gadamer's simply adopt Heideggerian ontology; rather he supplies its greatest lack: a personal, truly human relation. Gadamer makes clear that his entire work was an attempt to interpret the meaning of Heidegger's thrownness as determination by the other lest we succumb to our finitude:

What I intended to show Heidegger already in Marburg, and developed further in the Lisbon lecture and other work, is that the actual meaning of our finitude or thrownness consists not only in the awareness that we are historically conditioned [Bedingtheit] but in our awareness of being delimited by the other . . . the only way not to succumb to our finitude is to open oneself up to the other, to listen to the Thou in front of us.5

We find the same claim to have overcome Hegel's and Heidegger's reductive conceptions of otherness in Gadamer's defense against Derrida's accusation that philosophical hermeneutics hankers after logocentric metaphysics of full presence. Gadamer is charged with defining understanding as familiarity and sameness, thus suppressing difference. Gadamer explains, however, that if deconstructionists paid more careful attention to his use of logos, they would find that Aristotle's idea of logos for the linguistically of our being in the world and the nature of truth does not allow for any assimilative metaphysics whatsoever. …