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<nettime> Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002
John Armitage on Tue, 19 Mar 2002 08:11:03 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002

Hans-Georg Gadamer German philosopher who studied with Heidegger but
developed the theory that language, not time and culture, determines

Julian Roberts
Monday March 18, 2002


Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has died in Heidelberg aged 102, was one of the
outstanding figures of German 20th-century philosophy. He was not just
astonishingly long-lived, but his frenetic philosophical activity
continued until his death.

Gadamer only came to prominence as a philosopher with the publication of
Truth And Method in 1960; and his role is best seen as part of the postwar
rehabilitation of German philosophy.

His career reflected the times in which he lived. Born in Marburg, the son
of a chemistry professor, he chose to study philosophy despite the
political and economic mayhem of inter-war Germany, taking his doctorate
with Martin Heidegger in Marburg in 1929. Heidegger remained the formative
influence on Gadamer's thinking.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, he still had no job. Unlike Heidegger,
Gadamer never joined the Nazi party, and (perhaps because of the polio he
had contracted as a student) was able to avoid all military commitments.
Nevertheless, the Nazis forced him, as they did all surviving academics,
to jump through various more or less degrading hoops (notably at "camps"
for members of the National-Socialist Lecturers' Club).

In 1934, Gadamer taught briefly at the University of Kiel, then a
well-known Nazi stronghold. In 1937, he became professor in Marburg, and
two years later in Leipzig. After the war ended, the Soviets made him
rector of Leipzig University, but in 1947 he moved back to Frankfurt and
then finally to Heidelberg in 1949, where he remained, unmarried, until
his death.  Academic philosophy in 20th-century Germany falls into two
distinct phases. The first half of the century was fascinated by the idea
of reason as something historical. It was to be understood not as some
neutral instrument, equally available to all thinking creatures, and
subject to universal rules accessible to all, but as being rooted in the
particular circumstances of time or culture. Heidegger's celebrated notion
of Dasein (existence, but - literally - "being here") was a revolt against
the "analytical" traditions of the late 19th century and the thought that
the truths described by philosophy were indifferently available to all
people, whether "here" (that is, part of this culture) or not.

Such notions were appropriated by unsavoury political operators. Heidegger
was, at least initially, content for his historicist existentialism to
flow into the new political establishment's nationalism and racism.  
After the second world war, it was clear that German academic philosophy
and its historicist existentialism were seriously compromised. One (still
continuing) response to this was a widespread revival of analytical and
natural law traditions. Another was a resurgence of Marxism. A third was
the attempt to rescue historicism by cleansing it of the nasty political
flavour it had acquired during the dictatorship.

The theory of "hermeneutics" which Gadamer developed in Truth And Method
is part of this third project. In it, he withdraws from the extreme
standpoint of prewar existentialism - that Being is fixed by historical
and cultural circumstance, replacing this ontological radicalism with a
theory of language. For him, Being is not constituted as such by race and
nationality, but, in a celebrated dictum: "Being that can be understood is
language." If I have no word for something, it does not "exist" for me, so
existence, or failure to exist, happens within language. Without language,
there is no understanding, and language is a product of history and

According to Gadamer, language is a historical phenomenon for two reasons.
One is practical. Language is about communication. It is about
transferring, aggregating and processing information. The ability of
language to perform these functions depends on the skill with which its
users understand each other in any particular case. Language determines
consciousness; and this determination depends on how well people have
communicated. So: "hermeneutics", for Gadamer, means "understanding" in
this concrete sense.  One aspect of this, for his own work, was a renewed
emphasis on rhetoric as the discipline of making language function in
practice. Another aspect is his famous model of reasoning as dialogue.
Language's second historical characteristic is that it articulates
cultural identities.

Gadamer shares the existentialist suspicion of projects which purport to
determine truths and values by means of abstract calculation. As far as
values are concerned, we inevitably start off in the historical "here" in
some way we cannot further analyse. In that respect, as Gadamer argues,
valuative (moral or artistic) judgments are quite properly "prejudices" (
Vor-urteile , "pre-judgments"). This is not a bad thing, for, as long as
we recognise what is happening, we can start to engage in the hermeneutic
dialogue which language offers to us, and so overcome the limitations of
our own starting position and move towards a richer understanding of
ourselves and others.

Typically, this takes place in more or less formalised hermeneutic
"dialogues" which strive to reconcile inconsistent valuative positions.
Major examples would be discussion about the value of works of art, and
the legal discourse of the courtroom.

Gadamer's theories bore most philosophical fruit in the 60s and 70s, not
least in exchanges with other "linguistic" theories such as that of J|rgen
Habermas. Subsequently, Gadamer's academic influence has become largely
confined to the cultural disciplines; in Germany itself, the predominant
analytical tone has now more or less extinguished philosophical

As far as the overcoming of the past is concerned, it must also be said
that (despite his own interest in the 18th century), Gadamer never
developed any understanding for what may well be the best remedy for nasty
philosophy - namely the empiricism represented at that time by David Hume.  
7 Hans-Georg Gadamer, philosopher, born February 11 1900; died March 14

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