Gadamer's Hope

Article excerpt

One thing that especially concerns me is that young people today grow up with very little confidence, without optimism, and without an unqualified potential for hope. (Gadamer, Hermeneutische Entwurfe 6)

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NEAR the end of his life Hans-Georg Gadamer had become a kind of media star. Much against his will perhaps, but he nonetheless enjoyed this fame of his old age, after spending his entire life in the shadow of his celebrated teacher Martin Heidegger. He granted countless interviews to a variety of media and newspapers--including the rather populist Bild Zeitung and the weekly illustrated Der Stern--interviews in which he was asked about every possible topic from Harry Potter to September 11 to God himself. For those close to him this was not infrequently a source of concern, because journalists hungry for sound bites occasionally wrung statements from him that were more or less felicitous. But his grandfatherly openness contributed more than a little to his unique aura.

It would be easy to down play the significance of these interviews. But I believe that Gadamer expressed some of his most intimate philosophical convictions in these interviews, which for him were opportunities for conversation. I recall how during these years he struggled without success to launch a book project titled "From Word to Concept." But while utterly unsuccessful with the writing, in conversation he was very much his old self and faced the challenge of the questions happily and with utmost concentration. It is well known to what extent his philosophy is one of conversation. Thus it is perhaps no great leap to look for this philosophy in his actual conversations, regardless of how diverse the interests and presuppositions of those with whom he spoke (also, as it happens, a characteristic of Plato's dialogues).

And Gadamer's late philosophy, as it haltingly finds expression in these conversations, is undoubtedly one of hope. Just a few weeks before his death, practically every daily and local newspaper carried an interview marking his 102nd birthday, on February 11, 2002, in which he emphasized an insight which had become a leitmotif of his later years: "Man cannot live without hope; that is the only proposition which I would gladly continue to defend without qualification." Understandably the papers turned this into a headline: "The Principle of Hope. Hans-Georg Gadamer Turns 102." (1) In the popular mind Gadamer had become--as he in fact had come to see himself--the spokesman for the "principle of hope."

At first glance this may seem surprising. For "principle of hope" is far more likely to bring to mind an author such as Ernst Bloch (who succeeded Gadamer in Leipzig in 1948-49), or the Tubingen theologian Jurgen Moltmann. But Gadamer, whom Habermas had once accused of a backward-oriented "conservatism"? And why was this "the only proposition" which Gadamer was prepared to continue to defend without qualification? Other propositions, more representative of Gadamer would more likely come to mind, for example: "Being that can be understood is language" (Gesammelte Werke vol. 1, 478, which represents the "conclusion" of Truth and Method). "In fact, history does not belong to us, we belong to it" (Gesammelte Werke vol. 1,281, the principal thesis of the second part of his principal work). "This is in fact the hermeneutical Urphanomen, that there is no possible statement which cannot be understood as an answer to a question" (Gesammelte Werke vol. 2, 226). Or as he frequently stated later, "The soul of hermeneutics lies in the fact that the other person can be right." (2) But it would not occur to any reader of Truth and Method or of the entire Gesammelte Werke that "humans cannot live without hope" is the single most prominent pronouncement. In fact there was practically no mention of hope in Gadamer's magnum opus of 1960. On the contrary: the work appeared to insist to a far greater extent on the determination of consciousness through the past and through history. …