Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics

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Chapter 18

Being eighty-five, I am an oldest child of the century which is being reviewed in this lecture series. I have lived through this stormy epoch from my childhood until today and may therefore qualify as a witness. Not a witness who presumes to speak as an expert about political and social events, but as one who may recall what has happened in order to raise the question what philosophy, the area about which I do have something to say, has to do with our situation, with our fears, our hopes, and our expectations.

Everyone should be aware that a theoretical person, who has devoted his life to pure knowledge, also depends upon the social situation and political praxis. Society itself first provides for that distance which is required of us as our professional task. It would be insane to believe that the life devoted to theory would ever be independent of the political and social life and its constraints. The myth of the ivory tower where theoretical people live is an unreal fantasy. We all stand in the middle of the social system.

Those of us who have lived through two world wars and their interludes and results, can truly not be tempted to believe ourselves to be in an ivory tower. However, what have we learned from this? We should ask with Hofmannsthal: "What is the use of having seen a lot?" Perhaps it nevertheless means something when I relate, for example, how I, as a young student in 1913, received for the first time on the occasion of an exhibition, pastries baked in vegetable oil, coconut oil. That was a completely fantastic novelty in Silesia which overflowed with butter and where I grew up -- this was, by the way, an aspect of the German colonial politics of 1913. It may also mean something when I recall how the first Zeppelin filled us with wonder, this cigar floating in the sky. It was the case that one began even as a child to feel something of the time, of its self-consciousness, its beliefs, also its hopes, and certainly also its fears. As is the way with children, it was mainly the occasional subtle earnestness in the words of my father that led me to feel that not everything was at its best in the world. So I will not forget the moment of the outbreak of the war in 1914, when I enthusiastically cried out with the frivolity of

Essay published in Stuttgart, 1985.


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