Beyond the "Fusion of Horizons": Gadamer's Notion of Understanding as "Play"

By Vilhauer, Monica | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond the "Fusion of Horizons": Gadamer's Notion of Understanding as "Play"


Vilhauer, Monica, Philosophy Today


The philosophical world has come to associate Gadamer's notion of understanding with a "fusion of horizons" (Horizontverschmelzung). Every introduction to Gadamer's philosophy places a heavy emphasis on this phrase, and Gadamer's most influential critics tend to focus closely on the notion as well. The image of fusion appears to many of Gadamer's critics (from Betti and Hirsch,1 to Habermas,2 to those of a Nietzschean-Derridean orientation such as Bernasconi3 and Caputo)4 to be fundamentally opposed (in various ways) to difference, tension, and even plurality: It appears to always make "one" out of "two," and even force "two" into "one" in a way that ultimately does violence to otherness, alterity, or resistance. Critics see it as a unifying and homogenizing force that aims to do away with a diversity of perspectives - a process in which one horizon is taken over or assimilated by another dominating one so that a totalized, univocal, or static end may be reached. Though I am as mesmerized as the next reader by Gadamer's image of the fusion of horizons, I suspect that the image considered alone is much too susceptible to misinterpretation: We would do well in avoiding a misrepresentation of that "event" of understanding that constitutes Gadamer's account and practice of hermeneutics if we move beyond our fixation on the fusion of horizons, and expand our focus so that Gadamer's more pervasive concept throughout Truth and Method - "play"(Spiel) - may come into view. Recognizing Gadamer's notion of understanding as "play" will allow us to see more clearly the way in which understanding always remains a dynamic process in which difference is the life-blood. It will also allow us to retrieve the context in which we can better grasp the meaning of the fusion of horizons.

In referring to "play" in the context of art alone, much of the secondary literature on Gadamer discusses the concept only in its local relevance.5 Those who sense that its significance might stretch beyond the experience of artworks to, at least, the reading of texts, still find its larger implications to be vague or merely "suggestive," and in need of further explication.6 I would like to claim here that "play" has a global relevance in philosophical hermeneutics and show that "play" elucidates the very structure of understanding in general - that understanding which stretches through all of our hermeneutic experience, including our encounters with art, text, tradition in any of its forms, and with others in dialogue.

Essential to Gadamer's concept of play, as he explains at the outset of his discussion of the ontology of the work of art in Truth and Method1 is that play is not a subjective act or attitude - not something that happens in the mind, impulses, or conduct of the subject - but is, rather, an activity that goes on in-between the players, reaches beyond the behavior or consciousness of any individual player, and has a life, meaning, essence, or spirit of its own that emerges from the players' engagement in their back-and-forth movement. This "spirit" of a particular occurrence of play is what Gadamer calls the true subject or "subject matter" (Sache) of play: It is the meaning of the play, which reaches presentation (Darstellung) only in and through the players' pattern of movement (Bewegungsordnung). The spirit, subject matter, or meaning of play, according to Gadamer, is the game itself (das Spiel selbst), which has the character of an "event" (Geschehen).

Crucial to Gadamer's notion of play as "event" is that it is a process whose character is fundamentally dynamic. Gadamer perceives that what is essential to the definition of "play" is the spontaneous back and forth movement (Bewegung) that continually renews itself: it is the occurrence of this movement that goes on in-between the players that constitutes play. Because of this, we can see that play itself cannot be a solitary event. The movement of play itself requires a respondent for the motion to continue and the game to go on. …

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