Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Conversation That Never Happened (Gadamer/Derrida)

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Conversation That Never Happened (Gadamer/Derrida)

Article excerpt

"IT WAS AN 'IMPROBABLE' ENCOUNTER, but improbable though it was, it took place." (1) This is how Diane Michelfelder and Richard Palmer initially described "The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter." Let me remind you of what happened (or did not happen). In April 1981, Philippe Forget organized a conference at the Goethe Institute in Paris that brought together Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida, as well as a number of other French and German scholars interested in hermeneutics and poststructuralism. At the time, these were two of the most significant continental philosophical orientations of the twentieth century: hermeneutics, deeply rooted in German nineteenth-century philosophy; and poststructuralism, a movement that burst upon the French scene after the Second World War. Gadamer, already in his eighties, and the much younger Derrida were respectively acknowledged to be the leading spokespersons of hermeneutics and deconstruction. Gadamer hoped that the occasion would provide an opportunity to begin a serious conversation with Derrida. In his lecture, "Text and Interpretation," Gadamer sketched his own understanding of hermeneutics against the background of their conflicting interpretations of Heidegger and Nietzsche. He indicated that "the encounter with the French scene represents a genuine challenge for me. In particular, Derrida has argued against the later Heidegger that Heidegger himself has not really broken with the logocentrism of metaphysics." (2) By sketching the different German and French readings of Heidegger and Nietzsche, Gadamer sought to provide a basis for a conversation. (Derrida's paper at the conference deconstructs Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche). But the conversation never really took place. The morning after Gadamer's lecture, Derrida began his brief reply by declaring: "During the lecture and the ensuing discussion yesterday evening, I began to ask myself if anything was taking place here other than the improbable debates, counter-questioning, and inquiries into unfindable objects of thought--to recall some of the formulations we heard. I am still asking myself this question." (3) He then went on to ask three questions, "taking off" from a brief remark that Gadamer made about "good will." (4) Gadamer was clearly perplexed and began his response to Derrida by saying: "Mr. Derrida's questions prove irrefutably that my remarks on text and interpretation, to the extent they had Derrida's well-known position in mind, did not accomplish their objective. I am finding it difficult to understand these questions that have been addressed to me." (5)

I think that anyone, regardless of their sympathies with hermeneutics or deconstruction would not find in these exchanges any real encounter--any meeting of minds. And this is a great pity because there are important and consequential differences and points of contact between hermeneutics and deconstruction. The so-called encounter of Gadamer and Derrida strikes one as a classic instance of non-communication, of two philosophers speaking past each other; neither really making substantial contact. As we shall see, by the criteria that Gadamer takes to be a genuine conversation or dialogue, this is an example of what happens when a conversation or dialogue does not happen. Michelfelder and Palmer tell the story of how the papers from the 1981 conference were subsequently published in French and German, and how they decided to publish translations of the key texts from the 1981 conference together with other texts and commentaries. (6) Gadamer and Derrida met on several occasions after 1981, but there is no evidence that they ever really had a real dialogue. (7)

I want to imagine the conversation that might have taken place. Or more accurately, I want to explore some of the key differences and points of contact between Gadamer and Derrida. I hope to show that they stand in a productive tension with each other; they "supplement" each other. To characterize their complex relationship, I employ a metaphor from Benjamin and Adorno that I have used before, that of a constellation: "a juxtaposed rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resists reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle. …

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