Hermeneutics Is Love's Desire To Know

I haven’t read Hans-Georg Gadamer, best known for his work Truth and Method (New York: Crossroads, 1989), but Roger P. Ebertz, who teaches philosophy at the University of Dubuque, has. And on this Ebertz and I very much agree: Gadamer’s hermeneutic model of knowing is superior to the absolute I (the ego or cogito) of Descartes and Kant and the Enlightenment project.

This makes me a postmodernist of a sort. It means I have made the hermeneutical turn. And I hope it means that I have skipped the turn to the subject as best I can, though as an American, doing that completely is impossible. Nevertheless, I have leapt over it and grasped for the context and community of hermeneutics. I agree with Heidegger that human beings, that I, am thrown into the already spinning world and I cannot deny that or rise wholly above it. There is no absolute viewpoint. There is no point of superior knowing. As I said before, the way human beings are in the world is tensed. We are history all the way down. “In all understanding,” quoting Gadamer, “whether we are aware of it or not, the efficacy of history is at work” (301).

Ebertz outlines several Gadamerian themes that clarify the hermeneutical model of knowing. Let me reproduce them here.

1. We each stand facing the world from a historical and linguistic position as a member of communities. Gadamer calls this qualification prejudice, meaning our knowing is bounded by our finitude. Our finitude, in the context of knowledge, is called our horizon.

2. We may as well accept our prejudice as we acquire knowledge. Descartes looked for a method to remove all prejudice from knowing. Gadamer says this is impossible.

3. Without our prejudice, we cannot understand. After all, we can’t begin from nowhere. “Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us” (9).

4. Our prejudice helps us recognize what is new to us. And here Gadamer raises the question of authority and tradition. Both are connected to language, “for language is . . . the reservoir of tradition and the medium in and through which we exist and perceive our world” (29). And both allow us to recognize and be open to the new.

5. Every cultural object, such as another person, a text, a painting, a piece of writing, is an other, and every other has its own horizon. Gadamer called others texts and made the interpretation of a text stand in for the requirement all others make upon us.[1]

6. Bridging the unknown between oneself and the other is the hermeneutical task. Gadamer calls the goal of hermeneutics the “fusion of horizons.” This cannot be a complete fusion. It is just an agreement about the subject matter at hand. It is a loving act.

7. Questions are the spade and trowel of hermeneutics. “Questioning . . . and being questioned . . . is at the core of interpretation. It is a dialogue.” Gadamer calls it play. In play, we risk ourselves, we risk our prejudices. Change may be required. Also, love.

8. Change is always happening. No horizon is ever fixed. Horizons are always being formed and reformed. Others will pull us up short and interrogate us. That’s the nature of the task. Love opens our arms in vulnerability and expectation.

I want to make sure and say that all of this is absolutely in community. Our tools and limitations weren’t invented by us. We grew up in them. And no one seeks understanding alone, but as part of a formal or informal community of seekers. I added love to the above principles because I want to highlight the ethical and personal dimension of the discussion.

I also want to say, as a theologian, that the above is not a recipe for relativism or rampant perspectivalism or psychologism. I confess that the triune God made the world, and that he has spoken to us in flesh and bone in the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth. Here, let me quote Ebertz: To say that each person’s view of reality is relative to his or her historical, cultural situation does not imply that there is no independent reality which we each view. To say that our language shapes or influences the way we view reality does not imply that reality is entirely constructed by culture and language. As a Christian, I believe there is a reality that transcends my beliefs and culture, my worldview. There is in fact “a God who is there,” as Francis Schaeffer used to say, and a reality that God has created. We can thus affirm that there is a truth, and that it is God’s truth. But this does not entail that any human being can ever grasp that truth fully and see reality without seeing it from his or her own perspective. Since we are finite and fallen, this perspective can never perfectly represent reality.(18)

Now a few words about theology as craft. As I construct my own theology, as I interrogate my prejudice, I seek after God’s wisdom knowing I can never fully contain it. What I can hope to attain is a life given shape by the confession "Jesus is Lord." I can seek as one among others who are also seeking, inhabiting and contributing to a tradition. As Ebertz says, “It is both out of our tradition that we understand the world and into our tradition that we contribute our unique development of that tradition in light of our own experience and work” (28). Finally, I must be suspicious of claims to have arrived as one is suspicious of any idol-—and even my heart may attempt such a claim! To be historical means that knowledge of oneself and others can never be complete (302). Therefore, humility and love seeking understanding are essential to the theological task.

Finally, I mean for this entry to work together with the entry just before it on Augustine and time. In that article, the subject matter of time and eternity is a little different, yes, but the bones are the same: God's is the only absolute seat of being and knowing. Our being and knowing is always qualified. (Ebertz says that is because we are finite and fallen. I think it would be true even if we weren't fallen. Polk says, for example, that once you are in a body, you are limited.)

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[1] Note Richard Young's discussion of deeper and surface structures of meaning in language in Intermediate New Testament Greek (Nashville: BH, 1994), 4-7. Surface structure is the spoken or written symbols of a language determined by grammar and syntax. Deep structure he divideds into two parts: the linguistic deep structure, which does not concern this note, and conceptual deep structure which is the total meaning of the communicative act. Some correspondence exists between the surface and the deep structure, but speakers are efficient and do not encode everything they mean. They rely on information shared between speaker and hearer to fill in data. And, because no two people share the exact same pool of experiences and knowledge, communication is never perfect but requires a hermeneutical process or spiral toward clarity just as Gadamer describes. Young writes,

The meaning of an utterance cannot be determined by adding up the supposed meaning of individual words and pieces of grammar. Meaning can only be determined by viewing the communication act as a whole. Each part contributes information to the whole, while at the same time being modifed by the presence of other parts. Thus semantics [the study of language meaning] must be concerned with a wide range of interacting linguistic and extralinguistic data." (6)

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Roger P. Ebertz, "Beyond Worldview Analysis: Insights from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Christian Scholarship," Christian Scholar's Review 36:1 (Fall 2006).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Crossroads, 1989.

----------, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Jean Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer, trans. Kathryn Plant. Continental European Philosophy (Montreal, Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

----------, "Gadamer's Basic Understanding of Understanding," in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Note also Brice Wachterhauser's article in that same volume "Getting It Right: Relativism, Realism and Truth."