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Historicism/Hermeneutics in Vico, Croce and Gadamer
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-02-13 07:43:12
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My last three contributions to Ovi dealt with modern historicism in Vico and Croce. They were promptly followed (it seems to have become de rigueur by now) by an attack on both historicism and its precursor, Giambattista Vico, declared a classicist and subsumed under Strauss to booth. The attacks in themselves and the tenacious holding on to a veritable confusion made by absolutists of all stripes and persuasions between historicism and relativism comes as no great surprise The points made in my contributions buttressed by primary sources in the original language (Italian) were simply ignored or perhaps fell on deaf ears. What ensued was a diatribe parading as a philosophical dialogue of sort. 

I am however concerned for any reader who may have followed the diatribe and may have been misled in the process. Therefore, I’d like to continue exploring the concept of historicism and hermeneutics in their major proponents: Vico, Croce, Gadamer in attempt to dispel the above described misleading confusion between historicism and relativism. There is little doubt that Hans-Georg Gadamer is the leading philosopher in the development of twentieth century hermeneutics. Trained in neo-Kantian scholarship, as well as in classical philology, Gadamer developed a distinctive and thoroughly dialogical approach, grounded in Platonic-Aristotelian as well as Heideggerian thinking, that rejects subjectivism and relativism, and grounds understanding in the linguistically mediated happening of tradition.

Gadamer's work can be seen as concentrated in four main areas: the first, and clearly the most influential, is the development and elaboration of a philosophical hermeneutics; the second is the dialogue within philosophy, and within the history of philosophy, with respect to Plato and Aristotle in particular, but also with Vico, Hegel and Heidegger; the third is the engagement with literature, particularly poetry, and with art; and the fourth is what Gadamer himself terms ‘practical philosophy’ encompassing contemporary political and ethical issues. The ‘dialogical’ character of Gadamer's approach is evident, not merely in the central theoretical role he gives to the concept of dialogue in his thinking, but also in the discursive and dialogic character of his writing, as well as in his own existential personal commitment to intellectual engagement and exchange.

The basic model of understanding that Gadamer finally arrives at in his by now famous Truth and Method is that of conversation. Conversation always takes place in language and similarly Gadamer views understanding as linguistically mediated. Since both conversation and understanding involve coming to an agreement, Gadamer argues that all understanding involves something like a common language, albeit a common language that is itself formed in the process of understanding itself. In this sense, all understanding is, according to Gadamer, interpretative, and, insofar as all interpretation involves the exchange between the familiar and the alien, all interpretation is also translative.

Gadamer's commitment to the linguisticality of understanding also commits him to a view of understanding as essentially a matter of conceptual articulation. This does not rule out the possibility of other modes of understanding, but it does give primacy to language and conceptuality in hermeneutic experience. Indeed, Gadamer takes language to be, not merely some instrument by means of which we are able to engage with the world, but as instead the very medium for such engagement. We are ‘in’ the world through being ‘in’ language. This emphasis on the linguisticality of understanding does not, however, lead Gadamer into any form of linguistic relativism. Just as we are not held inescapably captive within the circle of our prejudices, or within the effects of our history, neither are we held captive within language. Language is that within which anything that is intelligible can be comprehended, it is also that within which we encounter ourselves and others. In this respect, language is itself understood as essentially dialogue or conversation.

Gadamer claims that language is the universal horizon of hermeneutic experience; he also claims that the hermeneutic experience is itself universal. This is not merely in the sense that the experience of understanding is familiar or ubiquitous. The universality of hermeneutics derives from the existential claim for hermeneutics that Heidegger advanced in the 1920s and that Gadamer made into a central idea in his own thinking. Hermeneutics concerns our fundamental mode of being in the world and understanding is thus the basic phenomenon in our existence. We cannot go back ‘behind’ understanding, since to do so would be to suppose that there was a mode of intelligibility that was prior to understanding. Hermeneutics thus turns out to be universal, not merely in regard to knowledge, whether in the ‘human sciences' or elsewhere, but to all understanding and, indeed, to philosophy itself. Philosophy is, in its essence, hermeneutics.

Seeking to clarify what he was proposing in 1965, in the foreword to the second edition of Truth and Method , Gadamer emphasized that he had not offered a general theory of interpretation or an account of its method or methods. His focus had been on something more basic—on what understanding involves in a historical world. The inspiration for that was Giambattista Vico to whom Gadamer frankly acknowledges a great intellectual indebtness.

Gadamer claims that rather than posit transcendent subject and fixed object, we must conceive understanding as a process entailing reciprocity and reflexivity. In peering into some past moment, we relate not toward some fixed object "but toward its effective history—the history of its influence; in other words, understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood." Because all understanding is active interpretation, what had seemed "the object" grows as it is understood. And what had seemed "the subject" is not detached or aloof; rather, our own presuppositions are at issue as we understand, because what there is to be understood is the tradition through which we have become this particular way, through which our particular questions and categories have emerged. To take seriously the finite nature of one's own understanding is to "take the reality of history seriously." In opposition to Dilthey and the notion that history is an object for the human subject, Gadamer insisted that "in fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it."

As it becomes all-encompassing and philosophical, then, hermeneutics is no longer a teachable skill or method but, first, an account of how understanding happens in light of difference and, ultimately, an account of how the world grows as understanding happens in some particular way. It shows us not how to avoid misinterpretation in the face of the passage of time but how ongoing interpretation fills the passing time, creating a particular world in the process. Not only are historical inquiry and understanding themselves historically situated but it is partly because we understand or receive the past in this particular way, and not some other, that the future is as it is. For Gadamer, then, we present individuals are fundamentally finite and particular, but we project into the future on the basis of an infinite dialogue with the past, across time. The tradition, the world itself, endlessly grows as a result.

In following this line of reasoning, Gadamer was explicitly seeking to deepen Vico's dictum that we can know history because we have made it. Georgia Warnke summarizes thus Gadamer's point: “The way in which we anticipate the future defines the meaning the past can have for us, just as the way in which we have understood the past and the way in which our ancestors have projected the future determines our own range of possibilities. Thus, for Gadamer, Vico's formula entails that we understand history not simply because we make it but also because it has made us; we belong to it in the sense that we inherit its experience, project a future on the basis of the situation the past has created for us and act in light of our understanding of this past whether such understanding is explicit or not.” In a more succinct way what Vico and Gadamer are saying is that man is his own history.

For Gadamer, then, the distance between present and past is not "a yawning abyss" to be overcome through some special effort or technique. Rather, temporal distance makes some particular historical understanding possible—most basically because it "is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us." In other words, a continuing process links us to the past moment because we find ourselves within a growing tradition of understanding those at that moment and of experiencing our relationship with them. No matter how radical our revisions, our way of understanding what they did can only grow from—and belong to—that tradition of understanding.

Crucial though this continuity is, however, it is equally important that continuity carries change. Because we have come later, we understand the past differently, in a sense better, than it understood itself; we can gauge the results of what those before us did—and thus determine the meaning, so far, of what they did. In Gadamer's terms, "it is a hermeneutical necessity always to go beyond mere reconstruction," so it falls to us to add the next layer of meaning by questioning and apprehending the tradition from the vantage point of this historically specific moment. Thus it cannot be the aim of historical inquiry, or the key to historical understanding, to reconstruct the original or to apprehend the subjective intent of the historical actor.

For Gadamer, as for Croce too, a corollary of this deeper, post-metaphysical way of belonging to history was a more central role for historical inquiry. Earlier thinkers had assumed that historical truth required detachment, that the past had to be apprehended "for its own sake." In light of such imperatives, the culture had come to take it for granted that history deals with the past as opposed to the present; history was cut off from present life and made safe, as though confined to a museum. For Vico, Gadamer and Croce, to the contrary, historical understanding inflates in importance precisely because we understand it as bound up with a present that is endlessly projected into the future.

This projection means that we seek to understand history for interested, practical reasons. Gadamer and Croce have been unfairly charged with relativism by the absolutists, but each has insisted (as have their followers such as Vattimo and Berlin) that bringing subject and object together in a single open-ended history dissolves the problem of relativism and makes post-metaphysical sense of truth.

Moreover, Gadamer made Heidegger's insight about the happening of truth more concrete. Truth can occur as some particular world comes to be, because of the human mode of involvement with that coming to be in history. Truth is a function of our care for the world, for what it becomes. Thus for Gadamer, as for Croce, it is precisely the "interest" of the finite present inquirer, stemming from this projection into the future, that makes truth possible: "Precisely through our finitude, the particularity of our being, which is evident even in the variety of languages, the infinite dialogue is opened in the direction of the truth that we are."

Even as they insisted on the interestedness of our inquiries, Gadamer and Croce found it equally important to emphasize the other side of the coin, and they posited very similar ways of distinguishing interests or prejudices that serve the happening of truth from those that impede or distort it. For truth to occur, there must be a willingness to be challenged, a desire to learn, a need to know—all to enable the world to continue to grow through history. The care of the inquirer underpins that need, enabling what emerges to be a truth, as opposed to one of the contraries.

For Gadamer, as for Croce, the fact that there are genuine practical stakes is the basis for truth. The scope for truth is thus bound up with a certain way of belonging, a certain mode of identification with the actual. Each thinker sought to show why we might "respect" our present, as the outcome of our particular tradition so far, even while showing that such respect invites not passive acquiescence but creative response. We do not leave on Mount Olympus but identify with the present world sufficiently to care for it, to feel responsibility for it, and to respond to it, thereby changing the outcome, making the tradition grow. Such identification and care entail a sense of the weight of what we do, which is for keeps, because the happening of history endlessly gathers our responses together and thereby expands the tradition. Moreover, insofar as the historical text understands itself in Gadamerian terms, as part of the ongoing process of interaction, it makes no strong claim to truth and need not be preoccupied with explicitly questioning its own authority.

It is worthy of notice that Gadamer, writing in 1971, found it necessary to make in virtually identical terms the point about relativism that Croce had made in 1915. The relativism bound up with the reduction to history is dangerous, Gadamer insisted, only insofar as we continue to think in terms of "the standard of an absolute knowledge," which suggests there is some vantage point from which we might know something completely and definitively. But we abandon any such standard as we accept history as the only reality. Knowledge can only be provisional, finite, particular—but in the absence of any absolute standard, it is not merely relative in the usual sense. And it still may be true. Truth can occur as some particular world comes to be, because of the human mode of involvement with that coming to be in history. Truth is a function of our care for the world, for what it becomes. Thus for Gadamer, as for Croce, it is precisely the "interest" of the finite present inquirer, stemming from this projection into the future, that makes truth possible.

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