Re-Interpreting Hermeneutics U-Topias from the Continent

By Di Cesare, Donatella | Philosophy Today, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Re-Interpreting Hermeneutics U-Topias from the Continent


Di Cesare, Donatella, Philosophy Today


What is hermeneutics? This question might sound strange in America, in Germany, or in France. In Italy, however, it does not sound quite so strange. In fact just in Italy it is indispensable to ask: what is hermeneutics?

The vicissitudes and the misfortunes of hermeneutics in Italy impose this question. The philosophy, which at the end of the nineteen-eighties had achieved such success that Gianni Vattimo was compelled to speak of a new koine, now seems to be the philosophy most open to criticism and hostility, submitted to systematic attacks from many different fronts. How could such a resounding success transform into a failure overnight?

I would like to seize upon the occasion of this conference, which aims to assess contemporary Italian philosophy by "reinterpreting the continent," in order to redefine the philosophy that for years and decades was and is synonymous with continental philosophy; that is, I would like to redefine hermeneutics. And I would like to do it in an attempt meant, both here and also in Italy, to return the debate about hermeneutics to the dignity of a philosophical discussion. The question is important not only regarding the space that hermeneutics occupies in the constellation of philosophy today, but also because today we perhaps no longer have the need for new philosophies, but for a more open and thoughtful use of the philosophies we already have. So it seems necessary to reinterpret and redefine hermeneutics even in light of a great confusion that especially in Italy accompanies a widespread aversion. But even beyond the borders of Italy, I would like to ask, if a philosophy were to be a koine, what price would it have to pay, and what is the price that hermeneutics has already paid? Already, I would say: indefiniteness.

The very particular history of hermeneutics in Italy is not easily recounted in a few words. The history begins with Vattimo's translation of Truth and Method in 1972-the first complete translation. But already in 1963 Valerio Verra had written one of the first reviews of that work, a review that was also explicitly in agreement with what Gadamer had to say. The spread of Gadamer's work was so widespread in Italy that one could be tempted to consider hermeneutics the result of an internal development rather than something imported. But things are not so simple. Hermeneutics took hold against a complicated, eclectic, and manifold horizon. Hermeneutics was foreign to the Italian tradition, as the unfortunate fate reserved for the 1955 publication of Emilio Betti's General Theory of Interpretation demonstrates.

Hermeneutics does find some fertile ground in the humanistic tradition sensitive to Vico's reappraisal of rhetoric. But above all, it finds such fertile ground in existentialism, where Heidegger had already opened the door. Hermeneutics arrived in Italy within the context of a supposedly Heideggerian existentialism. Completely missing-and it is necessary to emphasize it-was phenomenology, which elsewhere has determined a different reception of hermeneutics. In other words, the interest in Gadamer was ignited by an interest in Heidegger, and above all, Gadamer was read through Heidegger. Thus the "urbanization of the Heideggerian province" was understood in Italy in terms of a simplified, popular version of Heidegger. Gadamer would later be perceived as having both the merit of having summarized the work of Heidegger, and the fault of having weakened its fundamental insights.

Luigi Pareyson was another key personality in the arrival of hermeneutics in Italy. In his Truth and Interpretation, published in 1971, Pareyson claimed that the originary relation to Being "is necessarily hermeneutic." Truth unfolds in an infinite series of interpretations that, although not relativizing, have no claim to the absoluteness that is reserved only for their inexhaustible source. It is important to emphasize this-because I shall return to itthat Pareyson placed the accent on interpreting, intended as "kindredness" [congenialità] whereas Gadamer placed the accent on understanding, intended as a "being struck by something" [Anstoss]. …

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