Enountering the Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer

By Chan, Stephen | Contemporary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Enountering the Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer


Chan, Stephen, Contemporary Review


IN 1968, when Gadamer became Emeritus, I was contemplating my first undergraduate year. Hans-Georg Gadamer was a German philosopher whose life (1900-2002) encompassed the whole twentieth century. He is best remembered for his important book Truth and Method (1960). Five years from the close of the millennium, at the age of 95, he gave a startling interview in the manner of a retrospective (Gadamer, 1995). I was struck by the prologue which quoted him musing on his brief time as Rector of Leipzig--'without illusions one cannot even try to hold such an office' (1995, 27)--as I was then contemplating transformation into a Dean, that is, a creature with noble responsibilities (and many ignoble ones), little power, a significant financial deficit, and an armour of illusions. As my Faculty have since testified, it is impossible to achieve a hermeneutic dialogue with someone necessarily clad in illusion. The theme of illusion, of a certain mythos, and the commonality only of conceptual thought based on shared ancestral abstractions, also seemed to permeate the interview. In short, the mythos of the non-European world made anything more than conversation with it difficult. The implication was a need for a common, and Western, logos. This seemed to me a pessimistic way of closing one millennium and commencing another. In this essay, therefore, I wish to present a Gadamer for the twenty-first century in which hermeneutic enquiry and understanding have no frontiers--an international relations, as it were, of Gadamer.

First, however, I should wish to elaborate briefly on two aspects of a frank and wonderful interview which I found disturbing, because archaic. The development of thought since Gadamer's own education must mean new--and complex--starting points for our enquiries. Those of us who admire Gadamer's thought and who wish to propagate his legacy must also be the ones to say where he was incomplete or wrong.

At the very least, it is to propose some contestations--even if, as in my foundation case, an element of ideology has long intruded into the contestation. There is, at foundation, a certain view of philosophy--and all Western thinking since--as Greek. There is even a difficulty in the transition of Greek into Latin (Gadamer, 1995b, 269) but there was a moment of pure transition from mythos to logos in the life and death of Socrates which Latin and its descendant languages could capture--and that is Socrates' rejection of locality, local laws, customs, and myths, on behalf of living and even dying for something, some value or morality that is universal. Hegel wrote of this and the Hegelian account influenced Gadamer--not least Hegel's assumption that all that was universal could be condensed into the Greek and Western legacy.

The legacy of that is still apparent in the case of International Relations and its use of critical theory--properly Germanic and anchored in an Enlightenment sense of the West as the precursor of universal history. In a sense, the Enlightenment was meant to be a renaissance, or at least the clearing of those blockages that had prevented the naissance of history and humanity realising itself. Both that history and humanity were drawn in a straight line from the Greeks; and the Greeks themselves were taken at their word--somewhat archaic to be sure, but pure, heroic, able to conjugate themselves with the gods, let us say (as others have said) Aryan.

It is against the Aryan model, of course, that Martin Bernal has written in his Black Athena (1987), repositing an older 'Ancient model' of cultural--and philosophical--permeations from other cultures, accomplished by trade, travel, migration, conquests and assimilations, inter-marriage and, simply, fashion. Now the Bernal revisionism partly destabilises itself by its own rush towards a too-naked goal (African and Semitic cultures were the hybrid foundation to the Hellenic) and its historical glosses where evidence is lacking.

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