To Its Cultured Despisers
DONALD G. MARSHALL
The terms “conversation” and “dialogue” lie at the heart of Hans-Georg Gadamer's description of understanding. In a phrase that draws together many lines of his thought, he speaks of “the conversation that we ourselves are” (TM378). 1 Although “understanding a text and reaching an understanding in a conversation” appear to be very different (TM378), Gadamer's analysis enables the insight that describing “the task of hermeneutics as entering into dialogue with the text” is “more than a metaphor” (TM368). To understand something is to reach an understanding with another about it, and that can only be achieved through a conversation that sustains the interplay of question and answer.
Much can be said—and has been said, by Gadamer and others—to explain, support, and elaborate these claims. It is true, I think, that some who read the preceding paragraph may form the impression that they already understand it. Within a contemporary American context, the terms “conversation” and “dialogue” seem immediately familiar. We have seen any number of public meetings, large and small, advertised as “conversations” or “dialogues. ” The former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities presented as his main goal setting up a program of conversations across the country about what America means. Religious leaders tirelessly call for dialogue both within and between religious bodies. The president proposed a national “dialogue on race” and participated in small-group discussions that were nationally televised. Nor are the terms uncommon in the narrower area of understanding texts. Robert Maynard Hutchins's introductory volume to the set of Great Books of the Western World bore the title The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education, and the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote a famous pamphlet called “Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind. ”