Birthplace: Marburg, Germany
Location of death: Heidelberg, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Friedhof Heidelberg-Ziegelhausen, Heidelberg, Germany
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Truth and Method
German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer is remembered for his important and influential contributions in the area of hermeneutics. Gadamer applied Plato's dialectic to the process of gathering information about other people's beliefs and he advocated approaching new information and viewpoints with an open mind so as to more fully comprehend them. Gadamer promoted the idea that our biases and beliefs are the product of our history. He elaborated on the 19th century concept of the "hermeneutic circle", in which the meaning of a text (or any other expression of thought) could be best understood through a process of approaching it as a whole, delving into its parts or into related works, and then reapplying the derived understandings to reexamining the original work. In this model, the process of learning and re-understanding never ends, yet it hopefully comes closer and closer to truth as our understandings progress.
His best known work was Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (1960), later translated into English as Truth and Method. Other important works include Philosophical Hermeneutics (1977), and Reason in the Age of Science (1983). In addition to Plato and Aristotle, Gadamer claimed Martin Heidegger as a major influence upon his thought.
Hans-Georg Gadamer was born February 11, 1900 in Marburg, Germany. His father was a chemistry professor at the University of Breslau, and later a director at a pharmaceutical institute. Although he hoped his son would also pursue an interest in the hard sciences, the younger Gadamer gravitated toward studies of the classics and the study of philosophy. Hans-Georg Gadamer entered the University of Breslau in 1918, moved to the University of Marburg in 1919, and in 1922 he earned his first PhD. A few years later he was working as an assistant to Martin Heidegger, while continuing his studies in the area of philosophy and philology.
After earning his second doctorate degree, he began teaching classical philosophy at Marburg. He then taught at Kiel (1934–37), again at Marburg (1937–39), then at Leipzig (1939–74), and Frankfurt (1947–49) before at last settling at the University of Heidelberg as a full professor (1949–68). During this period Gadamer survived both the potentially lethal repression of the Nazi party, and the subsequent Russian invasion, the post-war trials and scrutiny, and the iron rule of Soviet imposed communism.
In 1999, Jean Grondin, a philosophy professor at the University of Montreal, published his book Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (initially in German) describing these difficult war and cold war years. He cited Gadamer's ability to maintain a kind of diplomatic neutrality that allowed him to continue his teaching and research virtually uninterrupted. But critics jumped on the details contained in the book as "proof" of opportunism, political toadyism, and perhaps much worse. One critic in particular, Richard Wolin, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, claimed that Gadamer should have stood up to the National Socialists and, essentially, gone down in a blaze of glory rather than give tacit consent to their regime. Wolin cited the example of Socrates drinking the poison hemlock rather than face the mob. Wolin further asserted that a philosopher was supposed to be above political capitulations and efforts to survive despite the times -- his loyalty should first and foremost be to ideals, to objective, rationally derived ideas.
Although Gadamer never directly wronged anyone -- he did not betray Jewish colleagues to the Nazis, nor join or support the Nazi Party -- he is deemed guilty, by some, for not making some sort of obvious overture to political correctness. Such critics conclude that he is not a man of principle. Ironically all this ignores the fact of what Gadamer was teaching, hermeneutics, and its relevance to the political climate of the times. More specifically, it ignores hermeneutics as Gadamer formulated it. For Gadamer, hermeneutics, which dictates that understanding is an act of interpretation, is most effectively practiced by approaching a person, or a text, with an open mind. With a very specific kind of open mind -- one poised at the balance point between being completely open to the point of view of the other and at the same time staying in tune with one's own being, one's own point of view, or what he sometimes called one's own "prejudices."
In Gadamer's view, maximal understanding will occur when one can be at this balance point – neither lost in the other person's belief system, nor caught up in one's own inner tirade of arguments and self-justification. Instead, there should be willingness to, if only for a moment, see life through the other person's eyes. After this, you process the new resultant information against your own beliefs and prejudices. As a result of engaging in both of these processes one achieves at a new, fuller understanding.
As a long time scholar of Plato, Gadamer was a diehard believer in Plato's concept of "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." And this approach formed the basis of Gadamer's own hermeneutics. But interestingly, Gadamer's approach also required that one approach the other with an attitude that is, essentially, loving. That respects the viewpoint of the other, and respects the life experience that brought the other to his particular views.
Given this fact, that is, given that Gadamer was essentially teaching how to value and respect other viewpoints, to approach dissenters and even enemies with an attitude of loving, openness, and given that he was also teaching a background in the classics that substantiated this approach, how could critics not see how logical, and ethical, it was for him to continue his work, and to continue to pass along the fruits of his work to young people -- first amidst the murderous reign of the Nazis, and then during the repressive communist regime that followed? Could Gadamer really have done more good being imprisoned or executed, and by dragging others into such a fate? Or did he do the greatest good he could do by quietly teaching the logical basis for a life based on tolerance and the loving pursuit of truth?
Coincidentally, but not surprisingly, Gadamer was a man who believed philosophy should be approachable by the common man, and that its teachings should lend meaning and good to every day life. Moreover, he also believed that hidden within every day life, one could find the kernels of wisdom that would reveal the deeper meanings of culture, of history. While the natural sciences often sought to reduce life to simplest terms, and label the resultant factoids "understanding" or "knowledge", Gadamer believed that for culture, history, philosophy, and related disciplines true knowledge was contextual, cross connected, somehow immersed within and behind all the myriad details of a particular time and place. Thus art, which was itself influenced by and expressive of all these subtle influences, was an important inroad into understanding a society.
Another important tenet of Gadamer's thought was that each of us develops a set of biases or "prejudices" which color our perception of the world and our way of responding to it. These prejudices do not merely arise from us, sui generis, but rather they arise out of all that has gone before, out of the pre-existing worldview that our parents, neighbors, and nation had. This worldview was the result a complicated unfolding of (cross-influencing) events and ideologies that brought that worldview into being. History created point of view, preferences, values, and preoccupations -- or in short, "prejudices."
While Gadamer's detractors have sometimes criticized him for seeming to validate "prejudices", he was not arguing in favor of bigotry. Rather, he was making a point later expanded on by anthropologist Clifford Geertz -- that our beliefs arise out of something, and out of these beliefs then arise our judgments and perceptions. We cannot really exist without them. The best we can do is to be aware of them, and of how they color our responses.
In 1949, Gadamer was able to move to the west (West Germany), and have freer intercourse with scholars abroad, including within the United States. But even as he lived and taught outside totalitarian regimes, he was forced to continue his careful navigation of dogmatic politics. His past ties to his old colleague and mentor Heidegger brought his own politics into question. But his friendly dialogue with thinkers of varying political persuasions, such as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, and his works dealing with various literary figures (Jewish poets amongst them) seemed enough to reassure politically obsessed administrators that he was neutral and did not clash with whatever ideological fad the masses currently embraced.
After his retirement in 1968, Gadamer continued to teach at Heidelberg, alternating this activity with brief teaching and speaking engagements abroad, including in the US and Canada. In 2002 he died at the age of 102 years old.
University: University of Breslau (1918)
University: PhD, University of Marburg (1919-22)
Professor: University of Kiel (1934-35)
Professor: University of Marburg (1937-39)
Professor: University of Leipzig (1939-47)
Professor: University of Frankfurt (1947-49)
Professor: University of Heidelberg (1946-2002)
Author of books:
Habilitationsschrift: Platos dialektische Ethik (1931, philosophy)
Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (1960, philosophy)
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