Gadamer – The Historicity of Understanding

April 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

The enlightenment made a fundamental division in regard to prejudice: prejudice due to human authority and prejudice due to over-hastiness.

“For the critique of the enlightenment is directed primarily against the religious tradition of christianity, i.e. the bible.” (p 257)

“We may have superior knowledge: this is the maxim with which the modern enlightenment approaches tradition and which ultimately leads it to undertake historical research. It makes the tradition as much an object of criticism as do the natural sciences the evidence of the senses.” (p258)

“True prejudices must still finally be justified by rational knowledge, even though the task may never be able to be fully completed.” (p258)

“The basic discrediting of all prejudices, which unites the experiential emphasis of the new natural sciences with the enlightenment, becomes, in the historical enlightenment, universal and radical […] This is the point at which the attempt to arrive at an historical hermeneutics has to start its critique. The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of the enlightenment, will prove to be itself a prejudice, the removal of which opens the way to an appropriate understanding of our finitude, which dominates not only our humanity, but also our historical consciousness.” (p260)

The mistake of historicism is to assume that reason is its own master. Reason is in fact dependent on the environment in which it is deployed. (p260)

“In fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. THe self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.” (p261)

With regards to Descartes idea of method: “Over-hastiness is the actual source of error in the use of one’s own reason. Authority, however, is responsible for one not using ones own reason at all. There lies, then, at the base of the division a mutually exclusive antithesis between authority and reason. The false prejudice for what is old, for authorities, is what has to be fought.” (261)

“The distinction the enlightenment draws between faith in authority and the use of one’s own reason is, in itself, legitimate. If the prestige of authority takes the place of one’s own judgment, then authority is in fact a source of prejudices. But this does not exclude the possibility that it can also be a source of truth, and this is what the enlightenment failed to see when it denigrated all authority.” (p263)

On tradition:

“The fact is that tradition is constantly an element of freedom and of history itself. Even the most genuine and solid tradition does not persist by nature because of the inertia of what once existed. It needs to be affirmed, embraced, cultivated. It is, essentially, preservation, such as is active in all historical change […] Even where life changes violently, as in ages of revolution, far more of the old is preserved in the supposed transformation of everything than anyone knows, and combines with the new to create a new value. At any rate, is as much a freely chosen action as revolution and renewal. That is why both the enlightenment’s critique of tradition and its romantic rehabilitation are less than their true historical being.” (p 265)

“At the beginning of all historical hermeneutics, then, the abstract antithesis between tradition and historical research, between history and knowledge, must be discarded. The effect of a living tradition and the effect of historical study must constitute a unity, the analysis of which would reveal only a texture of reciprocal relationships. Hence we would do well not to regard historical consciousness as something radically new – as it seems at first – but as a new element within that which has always made up the human relation to the past. In other words, we have to recognize the element of tradition in the historical relation and enquire into its hermeneutical productivity.” (p 266)

The reciprocal relationships mentioned here refer to the hermeneutic circle and to the fusion of horizons.

On History:

“Rather, in the human sciences the interest in tradition is motivated in a special way by the present and its interests. The theme and area of research are actually constituted by the motivation of the enquiry. Hence historical research is based on the historical movement in which life itself stands and cannot be understood teleologically in terms of the object into which it is enquiring. Such an object clearly does not exist at all in itself. Precisely this is what distinguishes the human from the natural sciences. Whereas the object of the natural sciences can be described idealiter as what would be known in the perfect knowledge of nature, it is senseless to speak of a perfect knowledge of history, and for this reason it is not possible to speak of an object in itself towards which its research is directed.” (p 267)

Effective History:

“Historical consciousness must become aware that in the apparent immediacy with which it approaches a work of art or tradition, there is also contained, albeit unrecognized and hence not allowed for, this other element. If we are trying to understand a historical phenomenon from the historical distance that is characteristic of our hermeneutical situation, we are always subject to the effects of effective-history. It determines in advance both what seems to us worth enquiring about and what will appear as an object of investigation, and we more or less forget half of what is really there – in fact, we miss the whole truth of the phenomenon when we take its immediate appearance as the whole truth.” (p268)

“Historical objectivism, in appealing to its critical method, conceals the involvement of the historical consciousness itself in effective-history.” (p268)


“A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest him.” (p269)

With regard to understanding and knowledge, as your horizon grows, so does your hierarchy of value (in fact doesn’t just grow, but re-organizes, re-arranges) and this is fundamentally at odds with Historicism as at what point is the so-called object point of view wide enough, or far reaching enough to satisfy its claim to understanding. It seems much more reasonable to acknowledge the condition of human consciousness with regard to understanding.

” […] the working out of the hermeneutical situation means the achievement of the right horizon of enquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.” (p269)

reminiscent of Heidegger: “Whatever is being distinguished must be distinguished from something which, in turn, must be distinguished from it. Thus all distinguishing also makes visible that from which something is distinguished. We have described this above as the operation of prejudices. We started by saying a hermeneutical situation is determined by the prejudices that we bring with us. They constitute, then, the horizon of a particular present, for they represent that beyond which it is impossible to see. But now it is important to avoid the error of thinking that it is a fixed set of opinions and evaluations that determine and limit the horizon of the present, and that the otherness of the past can be distinguished from it as from a fixed ground.” (p272)


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