Gadamer and the Hermeneutic Circle:
The Hermeneutic Circle is the relationship between a reader and a text. Certain kinds of students of H; a reader and an author (but potentially not Gadamer). For Gadamer it’s a reader and a text, but also a part and a whole. As a reader I come to a text and read a part (a phrase or a sentence). This gives me a sense of an imagined whole. I use this sense of the whole to continue to read more parts. The way I judge these successive parts is based on my shifting sense of the whole. I refer those successive parts back to my sense of the whole, which changes as I gain information from each successive part. This is a circular pattern. Also, the present and the past. I am in my particular historical horizon, and then I look at a past historical horizon that I am trying to come to terms with, referring to my own knowledge of the world and then going back to the text and changing my understanding of the world and so on in a circular fashion. It can also take place across a social or cultural gulf. As we have a conversation I have to try to understand what you’re saying, and I refer it to what I want to know/say, and the circuit of communication between us has to stay open based on this understanding.
“He [the reader] projects before himself a meaning for the text, as a whole, as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text […] The later emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations with regard to a certain meaning.” Gadamer (Truth and Method)
What is there also has to do with ‘the subject matter’, the effort of the reader in coming to terms with the meaning of the text. What the text is really about.
Objectivity? This thinking suggests that you can’t get away from preliminary prejudices or conceptions. Even though there are always these preliminary conceptions (prejudices) there are never-the-less two ways into the circle. It is not a vicious circle. The way into the circle can also be constructed.
How? “In an interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being.” Heidegger
example: in an 18thC poem by Mark Akenside, the poet writes “the great creator raised his plastic arm”. For us in this day and age we might say OK, the creator raised a prosthetic limb. A strange image for an 18thC poet. However, with some knowledge of the horizon of the time period, we know that plastic then meant mighty, powerful and flexible. So the poet is saying, “the great creator raised his mighty, powerful, flexible arm.”
A good prejudice is our prior awareness that plastic meant something different in the 18thC to what it means now. A bad prejudice would be when we leap to a conclusion without considering that there might be some other historical horizon. The reason we can tell the difference, is because if we invoke the 18thC meaning, the line makes sense, though if we stick to our own understanding, the line seems ridiculous. A useful preconception vs. a useless preconception.
The Fusion of Horizons
Gadamer (Truth and Method): the great objection of Gadamer to other people in Hermeneutics is that they believe there is a methodology. The basic methodology is what Gadamer calls historicism.
Historicism: The belief that you can set aside pre-conception. That you can factor out your own subjectivity, in order to enter into the mindset of some other time or place: that you can completely enter into the mind of another. Gadamer says you simply cannot do this. You can recognize that you do exist, live, think consciously within a certain horizon, recognize that you are coming face to face with another horizon, and then bridge between the two. In other words,
to find common ground, to find some way of merging horizons. This act of horizon merging has as its result effective history: history which is useful, which can go to work for us, which is not just gathering an archive, and distancing us from the past. Historicism for Gadamer is somehow immoral as it condescends towards the past. It supposes that the past is simply a repository of information. It never supposes that if we merge ourselves with the moment of the past, the past might tell us something we need to know; maybe able to teach us something. Historicism forgets that we can be taught something by the past.
Heidegger: the “as”; to look at something free of “something as”, is this possible?; The act of just looking. If I look at an exit sign on a stairwell, I am simply looking at it, not engaging in communication with it, not presupposing anything on it, just simply looking. For Heidegger this is a total illusion. How do I know it’s a sign, how do I know it’s anything? I bring endless preconceptions to it. Never-the-less, it may be desirable to just ‘see’ something, to have something brought before us free of preconception. This is impossible. The mind cannot forget that I am looking at a sign, to forget ‘knowing’. I do not “not know” that it’s a sign. That it’s an exit sign is the very first thing I know. I always know something first ‘as‘ something. This is not to say that I am correct, it is simply the first act of consciousness. This applies to Gadamer’s critique of historicism.
Gadamer argues that we can’t merge horizons very effectively, unless we have a very broad and extensive common ground with what we’re reading. He first talks about Classicism, but later uses the term Tradition. Something we can share. The classical is something that doesn’t just speak to its own historical moment, but speaks for all time to all of us.
Ultimately it seems to me at this point that Gadamer is a realist as he acknowledges the ever-present subjectivity of human beings. Though this might be criticized as exploitation of another through the act of interpretation, it is never-the-less the state of the world. A critic who says that prejudices should be put aside for objectivity may be wandering down the track of idealism. Though this conflict is widely considered as irreconcilable.
Also, Gadamer’s most basic departure from Historicism, and Kantian theory of aesthetics, is simply to recognise the want or will to look at or understand an entity (a work of art or period of history). An inescapable aspect of any communication and enquiry, and a fascinating part of the H circle for knowledge building.