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2.36 Hans Georg Gadamer
Gadamer’s philosophy (Marburg, 1900 – Heidelberg 2002) focuses on hermeneutics. This word comes from the Greek and means “interpretation”, meant both as action of interpreting and as meaning that can be seen in a text. For example, a passage from the Gospel can be read in a political key, and then we can say that a political hermeneutics is applied. The hermeneutics can therefore be compared to a pair of colored glasses that each of us wears: they alter the perception of colors, but they also allow us to highlight elements that would be completely invisible to the naked eye or by using perfectly transparent glasses. Actually, there are no people wearing completely neutral glasses: each of us has in his mind, already as soon as is born, his preconceptions, the pre-understanding and predispositions that lead him to pay more attention to certain things and to neglect others. Since it is impossible to take off our glasses, the best thing is, rather than trying in vain to take off them, trying to become aware of them, as far as possible, taking advantage of the comparison with others, and exploit them to the fullest.
Another concept that Gadamer highlighted was that of a “hermeneutic circle”. It means that when we read a text, we are not the only one to interpret it, but it is also the text that interprets us, in the sense that it imposes itself to some extent on our mind, contrasts some of our ideas, provokes us; then we go back to reconsidering the text, and here comes an endless circle of us interpreting the text and the text interpreting us.
A third important concept is that of the independence of the text from the author: it does not make much sense to ask whether the author has thought of the meaning we are seeing in a text (or a work of art, for example); in fact it is impossible to enter his mind, even if he were present before us and we could talk to him. Therefore a text must be interpreted for what it is and not for the intentions that the author could have, which could also be unconscious, therefore unknown even to himself. So it is also possible to study the history of the effects that a text has produced in the various epochs, up to see the effects it produces in us today. Everything can also be compared with the traits of the author’s personality, which we can know in other ways, but it will still be a different work, even if an interesting one.
All these things assume a more general importance if we think that, in addition to a text, we can try to interpret life, the world, ourselves; in this sense Gadamer goes so far as to say that our whole existence is a continuous understanding and self understanding, a continuous interpretation, it is all hermeneutics; every human being is himself a hermeneutics, a way of interpreting life. Seeking the meaning of life is nothing other than trying to apply some hermeneutics to life.
I add a personal note here: we can connect the term “interpret” to the meaning it has in music; in music it means not simply understanding, finding meaning, but playing, playing a song. And then even in life we can witness to the world choices, interpretations, when we execute them. Who does some action in life is like one who “plays life” as a musical instrument is played and so lets others see and hear it as he understands it, without even having to add words of explanation.
Today the alternative to Gadamer’s thought is seen in structuralism: hermeneutics identifies syntheses, structuralism instead analyzes. The study of language, of the structures that make it work, of grammar, is analysis. Making sense of a sentence by expressing it with other similar words is instead making synthesis, interpreting, hermeneutics. Analysis does an orderly, systematic job; hermeneutics does a more rapid, transversal, almost at a glance job, being quickly able to see connections that analysis would identify in dozens of centuries, or even ever. The sense of “transversal” can be evident when referring to the game of “word search”, in which, by examining a table filled with apparently meaningless letters, we have to identify here and there sequences, in any direction, that form words with a meaning.