Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Hermeneutic Circle versus Dialogue

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Hermeneutic Circle versus Dialogue

Article excerpt

AT THE START OF HIS ACCOUNT of hermeneutic experience, Gadamer quotes Heidegger's Being and Time: "Our first, last and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves." (1) Both Heidegger and Gadamer stress the extent to which understanding is part of our practical immersion in our world. For Heidegger, fore-having, foresight, and fore-conception constitute fore-structures of understanding, while Gadamer refers to fore-meanings and fore-projections. Both sets of terms signify our practical preunderstanding and ongoing engagement with the things themselves, for which we might also try to articulate more explicit interpretations. Yet, if the fore-structure of understanding already reflects an engagement with and preunderstanding of "the things themselves," how can we work these fore-structures out in terms of them? How can we come to recognize that fancies and popular conceptions have presented these fore-structures to us or distinguish between fancies and popular conceptions and the things themselves?

Gadamer claims to take his answer to this question from Heidegger and to appeal, like him, to the hermeneutic circle. However, in this paper, I want to argue that Gadamer takes the question more seriously than Heidegger does and supplements recourse to the hermeneutic circle with an appeal to dialogue. I also want to explore some concerns about this supplement. Gadamer conceives of understanding as a dialogue in which we test our fore-meanings against those of others and come to a consensus with others about a subject matter (Sache). Yet, what if dialogue just as easily reinforces or even exaggerates our fore-meanings? And what if consensus is as easily to be feared as sought?

I

Being and Time revises the German hermeneutic tradition by conceiving of understanding not primarily as a rule-bound procedure for the correct comprehension of texts, but rather as our practical capacity to cope with the world. (2) Indeed, Heidegger's paradigmatic cases of understanding are not texts, but activities, such as opening doors and hammering. In these activities, we do not first see the door or a hammer and then discover its properties. Instead, understanding is, first of all, knowing how--whether knowing how to hammer, knowing how to do what I am doing, or knowing how to be. For Heidegger, we make this sort of knowing how explicit in an interpretation by understanding something as something in the context of our ongoing projects and purposes, as part of a set of functional interrelationships. We see the thing as something, a hammer, a door, and so on. As Heidegger puts this point, "That which is disclosed in understanding--that which is understood--is already accessible in such a way that its 'as which' can be made to stand out explicitly. The 'as' makes up the structure of the explicitness of something that is understood. It constitutes the interpretation." (3)

In Heidegger's terminology, the context of purposes, projects, and interrelations that allows us to interpret something as something constitutes the fore-structure of understanding, composed of fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception. Fore-having signals our immersion in the practical activities that constitute the arena for our interpretation. Our fore-sight indicates the perspective this immersion opens up for us, while our fore-conception fixes the range of possible meanings of that which we are trying to grasp. (4) To be sure, this fore-structure does not precede interpretation; it is rather part of it insofar as interpretations realize and articulate the possibilities that are disclosed in understanding as aspects of the activities in which we are engaged. Yet, if interpretations already involve an understanding of that which they are interpreting, how do they add to or, indeed, possibly correct our store of knowledge? …

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