Ronald Beiner's contribution to this collection strikes me as particularly far reaching, especially with respect to his argument that Gadamer avoids “the labyrinth of esotericism. ” Beiner contends that unlike Nietzsche, Derrida, Heidegger, and even Strauss, Gadamer does not try to “read under or though or behind the text. ” That is, he does not assume that “the 'subtext' is more meaningful than the text. ” For this reason, according to Beiner, Gadamer must be (for better or worse) excluded from the ranks of postmodern thinkers. This argument, I believe, opens up something important about Gadamer, but its implications extend far beyond the question of his postmodernism. Virtually all interpreters during the last two millennia, and not just the postmodern ones, have been “esotericists” of various stripes, insofar as all posit some “deep meaning” or other. Thus, if Gadamer does not do so, if he has no need for the surface/depth distinction, then his theory of interpretation marks a momentous change in the history of interpretation theory, because a hermeneutics without deep meaning amounts to a hermeneutics without any meaning at all.
This is not the place to attempt even a thumbnail sketch of the hermeneutic theories over the centuries that have depended on the surface/ depth distinction. 1 It is enough to recall that in the West this distinction dates, at the very latest, from allegorical readings of the Greek epics, a practice that Christians have modified and continued to our own day. During the medieval period, the metaphor of the integument or cover was most predominant, branching out into figures of the shell or chaff on the one hand and the veil on the other. Correlative to expression as covering, understanding comes to be figured as dis-covery of what lies beneath, once the veil has been rent, the nut cracked, or the grain winnowed. The dichotomies of spirit and letter, figural and literal, content and form, involve a