|公 法 评 论||惟愿公平如大水滚滚，使公义如江河滔滔
et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis
GADAMER: THE POSSIBILITY OF INTERPRETATION
University of California, Santa Cruz
In his book Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer examines the human understanding. He begins his analysis with Martin Heidegger’s concept of the circularity of human understanding. Gadamer’s writing in Truth and Method seems to go back and forth between normative suggestions and ontological analysis. While he does not openly attempt to convince us of what we should do as far as interpreting situations or texts, and even denies that to be what he is doing, normative language creeps into his writing in various places throughout the text. He also seems in some places to be saying that we get better interpretations through time and in others explicitly stating that this is not what he is suggesting. I will show that while Gadamer's theory at least allows for bigger, i.e., more inclusive interpretations—an idea which in itself has normative undertones—, there are teleological problems. As a result of the aforementioned problems, Gadamer’s theory does not tell us which of two or more competing interpretations or methods of interpreting is better than another. As there is no proper beginning to a circle, I will begin where Gadamer does, with Heidegger.
In section 32 of Being and Time, Martin Heidegger explains the fact that whenever we are interpreting a situation or even a text, we are always projecting our possibilities. And we cannot project possibilities unless we have at least enough understanding of the subject matter at hand to project the possibilities we project. So whenever we are interpreting we are to some extent understanding what is to be interpreted. (BT, 194) The outcome of these interpretations will always be circular to some degree, as we bring our pasts with us into the future. This circle is not to be seen as a vicious circle from which we are to escape. We are not presupposing what we will find upon interpreting. In other words when we understand and interpret, we are not doing something like justifying the existence of God with the assertion that it says so in the Bible. Rather, we simply have something in mind if we are to understand at all. In addition, "[w]hat is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it in the right way." (BT, 195) And Gadamer writes, "To try to escape from one’s own concepts in interpretation is not only impossible but manifestly absurd." (TM, 397) One must enter the circular structure of understanding by "not failing to recognize beforehand the essential conditions under which it (the interpretation) can be performed."
These "essential conditions" are what lays out the possible interpretations. So what we are doing in the circular structure of understanding is projecting possible interpretations, but, this does not mean that we know what "our" final interpretation will be before we actually interpret. In fact, on Gadamer’s account of Heidegger, the person interpreting "projects a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text." (Truth and Method, 267) Gadamer refers to this projection of the meaning of the text as a whole the "fore-conception of completeness." I take this to also imply that as a person progresses through a text, it is possible for the projected meaning of the whole of the text to change, for the more one reads, the more one brings to the rest of the text. This means that by the time a person finishes a text, the interpretation at the end can, and indeed will, be different than the one which emerged when they began the text.
When we interpret texts, for Heidegger, the object of interpretation is made to stand alone so to speak, and yet at the same time the object is not removed from the background ("objectified") from which it comes and to which it goes, as the interpreter is circumspectively engaged with the text.
If when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual Interpretation, one likes to appeal to what "stands there", then one finds that what "stands there" in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting. (BT, 192)
It seems as though this sentence of Heidegger’s alone is what Gadamer is attempting to explain in his theory of hermeneutic understanding. One can see how the above statement could be seen as implying a subjectivistic world. Heidegger wrote of the "undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting," which could be taken to mean that as there are x number of subjects, so that many interpretations. This is not what Heidegger meant. For Heidegger, there is no "world" without human consciousness. "World" here refers to worldhood in general, which is not any one particular world, but contains the whole of all possible worlds. (BT, 93) So then without human consciousness in the world there can be no interpretation of the world either. Even though "Dasein is in each case mine," a phrase Heidegger repeats often, this does not mean that the world is simply how I see it, for I only see the world in terms of (unless I authenticate myself) the "they" of which I am a part. We (the "they") do live together in a world and can communicate with each other, a theory which Gadamer explains in more detail.
As I see it, what "stands there" for Heidegger, is an interpretation of the book or work of art, etc., what Gadamer will refer to as the "text". The phrase "concrete kind of interpretation", Gadamer will understand this to mean the sort of interpretation which aims at "truth". The "truth" we are aiming for is none other than the possibility we end up accepting as being the most plausible. The "undiscussed assumption" in the Heidegger quote, contains, for Gadamer, the tradition and more importantly language of the person doing the interpreting; it is the existence of this "assumption" precisely which we should discuss, as hermeneutic thinkers. At every instance in the process of understanding there is language. This does not mean any one particular language, but rather that there is a means of communication with others which we call language. So it does not make a difference which natural language we use for discourse, so long as we understand it; and to understand a language for Gadamer is to understand a tradition, as there exists a connection between language and tradition in his theory.
A person who represents a tradition is to be found in a certain society. This society has its tradition, and this can be found in its language, in its already understood interpretations. This tradition is a sort of "authority". By authority we do not mean something hovering above us, making certain we stay within the boundaries which the current tradition prescribes. What is meant by authority is that unspoken, unwritten way in which people have been and/or still are, which is continually "affirmed, embraced, cultivated." (280) By "are", I mean the way people behave and think, making no difference whether they are explicitly aware of what they do or how they think, or not. This tradition is what is brought to the text to be interpreted, it is built in as a component of what we project. We can begin to see the number of possible interpretations diminish with the idea of tradition, as there are certainly less traditions in the world than there are individuals, even though individuals may represent different slants on a tradition. Notice above that the word "cultivated" is used. This means that traditions change, although cultivated also carries the connotation of maturing. Maturing carries with it the idea of betterment. We can see a pattern of normative terms emerge in Gadamer’s theory.
The sort of beings which interpret in the above fashion are historical beings, a thing which all humans are. This means that we bring our history with us, meaning we bring past traditions and interpretations, and that we are these things, but most importantly, that we are aware of this. "The truth of tradition is like the present that lies immediately open to the senses." (TM, 463) So tradition, i.e., our history, is what we see "through", so to speak, it is the filter through which the "world"—in the sense explained above—is disclosed as our world. But this is not enough , according to Gadamer. We should be historically effected consciousnesses. Gadamer sets out to tell us how hermeneutic understanding of an historically effected consciousness works, and he writes that he is "not proposing a method," he is "describing what is the case." (512 )
What is the case is that historically effected consciousnesses fuse horizons of the past. A horizon is described as "the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point." (302) "Horizon" is a nice choice of words here as horizons change with the movement through time of the person observing. For Gadamer, "[e]very appropriation of tradition is historically different;" meaning that every time we are aware of our tradition playing a part in an interpretation, each successive use of tradition is different. (473) He believes that we should not try to escape our traditions (as this is absurd) in order to investigate meanings of things (texts), what empirical science attempts to do with its objects of interpretation. This method of "objectification" in the usual scientific sense—in which the object is "removed", so to speak, from the context in which it was found, is not satisfactory when dealing with the human sciences, according to Gadamer, as humans are found in situations or traditions. Traditions in the past are built into our present ones, whether we acknowledge that or not. "In a tradition this process of fusion is continually going on, for there old and new are always combining into something of living value, without either being explicitly fore-grounded from the other." (306) We are not usually explicitly aware of ourselves as being effected by history, yet it is the case that we are. We are not aware that we constitute past traditions, and therefore horizons, but we should be. Awareness of our past, for Gadamer, involves an "openness to the other", an other which could be a text, a recognition that "I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one else forces me to do so." (361)
So far then, for Gadamer, "knowing and recognizing" that we are amidst a tradition which is inescapable is a good thing as far as interpretation goes. This recognition of our historicity seems methodical in the sense that we are to take into account this fact in our interpretation. This part of Gadamer’s theory sounds normative rather than matter of fact, as he likes to say it is. But it does seem possible that one can be aware of one’s historicity and still come to the same interpretation in the end as the one with which one entered into the present interpretation. Would Gadamer say that the present interpretation after such a series would be "better"? Also, if the epistemological or political/social telos is the same, then what makes one method of arriving at an interpretation better than another? In other words, why should it matter what method is used to interpret if the outcome is the same? In such a case, why would "knowing and recognizing" that we are historically effected consciousnesses matter?
Let us take the example of the Bible. Suppose that throughout history there was only one single interpretation of the Bible, meaning whichever church began remained united through time, yet everything else that happened in the history of the world still happened. First, would it even be possible that the interpretations would be the same? One response to the objection above is as follows. Taking into account the relationship which tradition and interpretation have with one another, i.e., all interpretations occur for an historically effected consciousness, even if the interpretation reached at the end of the engagement with the text is the same as the interpretation one went into the text with, even if one still thinks explicitly the same thing with regards to the subject matter of the text, the interpretation is actually a different instance of interpreting—as each appropriation of tradition is different—and therefore, the interpretation as a whole is different. In addition, he does state that traditions are cultivated. For these reasons, I believe Gadamer would say that so long as we are conscious of our historical effectedness, this would count as a further interpretation and therefore "better" or "genuine", even though he does say in one place that we simply "understand in a different way, if we understand at all"" (297) Regardless, the interpretation is always new, even if we return to a past interpretation. The fact that we have progressed in time means it is different. Gadamer rejects the Hegelian notion of progress, so what we end up with still seems to be a "better" interpretation, but that does not mean that there is ever a "best" interpretation. I am not saying that we always arrive at the originally projected interpretation, rather just that this must be a possibility.
Tradition for Gadamer is not only something we learn in life, "it is language-i.e., it expresses itself like a Thou", and language holds a special ontological status for Gadamer. (358) Language is a Thou, a mode of being which can have a conversation, as it "is not an object but is in relationship with us." (358) Texts are to be seen as examples of these "Thou’s", as they were born of traditions. This relationship, according to Gadamer, takes the form of a dialogue, implying that we are constantly at least interpreting the world before our eyes. The medium used to convey meanings and have a conversation, a dialogue, must be language, and in this language is contained the tradition of the interpreter. To have a tradition, a language, then, is to have a certain way of looking at the world, namely, that way in which one’s tradition speaks about the world. So for human beings anyway, to have a language is to have a "worldview." (442) While this means that different languages have different worldviews, the underlying fact is that without a language at all, one cannot interpret the world.
In order to have a view of the world, it is also necessary to experience the world. Yet we experience the world from the point of view of our tradition, our language, it is through language that our world is "disclosed." (446) This indicates language as the medium used in interpretation. Even in "circumspection" language must be present. With Gadamer’s notion of "experience", creeps in again the idea of "progress". In order to have a view of the world, one must experience the world. In order to experience the world, one must have a language, and language is a passing down verbally of tradition. In addition, experience for Gadamer only occurs in a negative fashion, meaning basically that we gain experience when things do not go as we expect them to, he refers to this as "genuine" experience. We experience a text when it wakes us up, so to speak. In order to wake up, one need not be dogmatic, but rather, open to the other. Only one who is experienced can have an insight which would in turn help that person gain more experience, and for Gadamer, the more times one is awaken, the better. We already know that there is no such thing as two of the same interpretations through history, even if the meaning agreed upon at the end is the same as that which one entered into the dialogue with. We can again look at the example of the Bible. If we agree on the meaning of a text, such as the Bible, we must have at some point engaged in a dialogue with the text if not also with other people about the text. If this is the case then the dialogue itself would be a new addition in history, as time would have been spent, to the tradition in which the interpretation is taking place, again, making the most recent agreement the better (implied by the normative language) one, even if what we agreed on in the end was the same thing as before. As argued above, there are no two identical interpretations, the fact that we are historically effected consciousnesses tells us this. When speaking of experience Gadamer writes, "The new object [of experience] contains the truth about the old one." (354) This idea of genuine experience along with the idea of cultivation seems to add up to betterment.
This idea of progress, the new containing the old is somewhat problematic if we reject Hegel. If we picture this view of old and new as a series of concentric circles, each enveloping the next smallest—the smallest being the most distant temporally—ad infinitum, then we can see that Gadamer could be telling us merely what is the case, and what is the case is that we are bettering our interpretations through time. We cannot say that we lose any one of the concentric circles, for if we could possibly lose it, that would mean that it never existed, by definition of what it means to be an historically effected consciousness. So it seems then that Gadamer could argue that even though the series of circles gets larger, this in no way means that we are getting closer to the "best" interpretation. Bigger is not necessarily better, though some traditions may believe that to be the case. Using his analysis of the historically effected consciousness, bigger seems better, even though he explicitly states this not to be the case. (He does however, in his discussion of tradition and authority write that we listen to authority figures because we believe that they have a "wider view of things." (280)) He writes that each successive interpretation is "the experience of an "aspect" of the thing itself." (473) It is a larger aspect, and must be, but we do not have to take this as getting closer to the whole. The whole point of Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory is that there is no whole which will stand forever. Remember that Gadamer still wants to say only that we understand differently.
The thing itself here is the written word. Writing for Gadamer is an "alienated" form of speech which must be brought back into a conversation (dialogue, using language which both parts of the interpretation can understand), with the interpreter through reading the text. The written word presents a work which is to be interpreted. "In writing, the meaning of what is spoken exists purely for itself, completely detached from all emotional elements of expression and communication." (392) The work also has "detached itself from the contingency of its origin and its author and made itself free for new relationships." (395) These statements make room for the "otherness" of texts. So when I see a book on the shelf and the spine is old and rubbed off-so that I cannot tell which specific work it is-this book is simply a work of art, and the new relationship arises when the text encounters a tradition, i.e., when it is brought into conversation with (in this case) me in language. Statements such as this can again make Gadamer sound as though the individual reading a text is the determining factor in the meaning of the text. We already know that individuals are submerged in traditions. But again, is one interpretation better than another, so long as one does what Gadamer prescribes, as different readings are possible even for an historically effected consciousness who is conscious of this fact?
A written text is detached from its origin, any emotional elements of expression and its author. What this amounts to is that without interpretation, there is no text, there is however, a work of art or similar, as mentioned before. In other words, if someone tells me they hung a painting on my wall, or bought me a book, it is merely a text or painting, until I give it meaning in my encounter with it. Because the work, in this case, is a written work, written using a language, there is at least what Gadamer sometimes calls the subject matter, sometimes referred to as the text itself. Presumably the book is about something. Now, in order for us to even be able to read the text at all, i.e., to even know what the subject matter at hand is, we need the language in which the text is written at our disposal. I need to find a work in order to engage in conversation with it. So, in telling us how to do this, Gadamer writes:
...one intends to understand the text itself. But this means that the interpreter’s own thoughts too have gone into re-awakening the text’s meaning. In this the interpreter’s own horizon is decisive, yet not as a personal standpoint that he maintains or enforces, but more as an opinion and a possibility that one brings into play and puts at risk, and that helps one truly to make one’s own what the text says. I have described this above as a "fusion of horizons". (388)
It should be clear by now that the text itself, upon interpretation becomes a text "for us", even though before the interpretation there was a work, a book, etc. But here the text comes into play as part of the determining factor of the interpretation.
This work is what we bring into conversation with us. However, the instant we bring it into conversation, dialogue, it ceases to be merely a work in itself, it becomes a for-us. In addition, remember that also as soon as we engage with the text, we project the meaning as a whole, we have our fore-conception of completeness, which can change as we read the text. Works only obtain the status "in-itself" when not being interpreted. But his for-us is written in a language using certain words, in the case of the Bible, words such as God, Heaven, Hell, faith, Jesus, Abraham, Job, etc. We can at least say that the subject matter of the Bible, whatever meaning is agreed upon, encompasses these things, objects. "The Jew who understands the text of the Old Testament in a different way than the Christian shares with him the presupposition that he too is concerned with the question of God." (331) So these are the things we bring in to dialogue with ourselves and our tradition, using the medium of language. We can at least at the outset then agree that the Bible does not contain the same subject matter as text about mainframe computer repair. While this example seems ridiculous (and perhaps it is) I believe it helps to make my point clear.
So we try to interpret the text itself, Gadamer says. This requires that the interpreter has a traditional prejudice on the matter, but this is not dogmatic, at least it should not be. We put our prejudices at risk. Again, this does not mean that these possibilities which we project are not genuine possibilities. If it turned out that they were not, then the idea of tradition would not work, as we would have nothing to bring in to play. In other words, if one part of the tradition can be lost or forgotten about, unacknowledged, them why not all of the tradition except the present of which we are immediately aware? The possibilities we project are directly related to our tradition. We bring these ideas (projections) into play with the subject matter of the text, i.e., God, etc. If we are aware of this process and the fact that our interpretation is not final, then we have achieved what hermeneutic thinking should do. Different interpretations are still possible, however, that there are so many different church congregations tells us this fact; they are all interpreting the same text. (In fact, according to George Amis, Literature Professor Emeritus at UCSC, people in one congregation kept a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost next to the Bible! This is an act that a born-again Christian might find completely blasphemous.) So what would make one of these interpretations better than another?
To begin an interpretation of a text such as the Bible, we begin in a tradition, which in our case is already Christian to a large degree; our present tradition is exactly the sum total of all past traditions and interpretations. We have this work in front of us which out of the necessity of our tradition, requires an interpretation. We are already a fusion of horizons, an historically effected consciousness, and let us for the sake of argument say that all existing interpretations of the Bible are hermeneutically correct, i.e., all people who agree on the interpretation are aware of their historical effectedness and take account of this. In acquiring the correct horizon by the fusing of horizons, by being aware that we are historically effected consciousnesses, we end up constructing a question to which the text is the answer, which we must, as the text is the "other" with which we engage in dialogue. However, as is the nature of dialogue, we must have some sort of clue in order to ask the text a question that it will unfold into an answer for us. The above shows that we must already have understood, i.e., interpreted, something in order to ask a question. So when we engage in conversation with a text, we already have a particular answer in mind (as a result of the fore-conception of completeness), for we have our tradition. This happens because prior to our interpreting, it was found that the text "poses a question and places our meaning in openness." (374) The exact question asked is not revealed theoretically because the question asked depends on the interpreter and the tradition brought to the textual interpretation. Likewise, the question we ask of the text is also not revealed until an interpreter engages with the text. The only thing we can know for sure in advance is that the work is about something, or else it would not ask a question when found. So then all we can know in advance is that the question, concerning the Bible for example, will at least contain the subjects God, faith, etc.
But supposing we assume that all existing interpretations are hermeneutically correct, we can still find no criteria for distinguishing a good one from a bad one. Gadamer does allow for mistakes to be made in interpreting, but this is of no help to us. We can see a ludicrous interpretation which does not jibe with our tradition at all, however. In addition, to be able to use hindsight to discriminate does not help us in the present know a good from bad interpretation. What hindsight does is allow us to realize at some point in time that we needed to change our interpretation, and Gadamer would say this is a good thing. However, the problem of the present still stands: how do we know which interpretation is the "best" for the time, if such a thing exists? Using the example of the Bible and its interpreters, one definite possibility for an answer would be to have the different congregations engage in dialogue with each other about the text.
It could be said that the fact that there are so many interpretations of the Bible means that many of the existing ones are no longer hermeneutically correct, i.e., they have become dogmatic, even if they have been reached in the appropriate hermeneutical fashion. So engaging in dialogue with one another in conversation would help to resolve the problem, if this is seen as a problem. Then interpretations themselves are to be seen as different slants on the tradition itself, slants which need to be cleared away to come to the "truth" of the matter, even though the possible interpretations would still be limited to interpretations containing the objects, God, etc. The conclusion these interpreters reach through dialogue would be the
logos, which is neither mine nor yours and hence so far transcends the interlocutor’s subjective opinions that even the person leading the conversation knows that he does not know. (368)
...in successful conversation they (the parties) both come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community. (379)
A new subject matter emerges as a result of this inquiry, so that they would end up at a conclusion which neither party could foresee as being the one which would stand at the end of the inquiry. In such a case whatever is projected by either party in their respective fore-conceptions of completeness, filtered through the historically effected consciousness, would be transcended by the newly arrived interpretation. It is still possible for the parties to engage in genuine conversation, being open to the "other", and end up with one of the interpretations held at the beginning, so that the fore-conception is confirmed. Taking into account the fact that we are proper hermeneutic thinkers, so long as the interpretations one entered into the dialogue with were questioned genuinely and then unknowingly arrived at again in the end, what emerges is seen as the logos, i.e., a new interpretation. It is also possible, that the interpretation reached at the end will be different from the two which entered into the dialogue, as the fore-conception is susceptible to change. For Gadamer then, this final interpretation, i.e., whatever is agreed upon, would be the "truth". This does not mean the final truth for all time, but rather at most the best possible interpretation for the time and at least a more inclusive interpretation than before, and one which is accepted by the tradition. So the interpretation remains open ended.
So the logos arrived at in the end however, which both parties could acknowledge as at most the best possible interpretation for the time, and therefore susceptible to change, is still not necessarily even the best for the time, rather, it is merely the interpretation arrived at after engaging hermeneutically with a text. That both previous interpretations i.e., traditions, are contained in the new one means that we have one more new concentric circle. According to Gadamer’s theory, this does mean a bigger, more inclusive interpretation, even though he states explicitly that we do not understand better.
It remains possible that another method of interpretation could come to the same interpretation (meaning) as if we were to follow this hermeneutic method, and it is not obvious in Gadamer that the method determines the outcome. If method does not determine outcome, then we could arrive at the same interpretation, i.e., meaning, using his method or another, such as author’s intention, etc. In such a case the difference between two interpretations would be a disclaimer at the end of Gadamer’s interpretation, a disclaimer allowing for change of the interpretation through time, in addition to the interpreter not being so dogmatic about the interpretation. It is still not clear why one interpretation would be more desirable than another, if the social or epistemological ramifications are the same. If the outcome is the same in society and how we live our lives, why should we choose one over the other? Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory does provide us with a method of interpreting the human situation and the texts which it produces, but this does not make it the right method. It is a method which he sees as fitting for the times in which we live. So we should think historically as Gadamer prescribes, but not think that we will always or should always think this way.
Rather, historicism that takes itself seriously will allow for the fact that one day its thesis will no longer be considered true—i.e., that people will think unhistorically. (534)
The appeal of Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory is that it leaves options open to us as far as what we believe. It gives us a sense of freedom and of having choice and change and progress, and it helps some of us realize that we need to be on guard against dogmatic beliefs; all this in the midst of a tradition which has come to believe in psychology and other normative human sciences. Rather than just believe what we are taught or told, we can, when engaging in dialogue with a text or a person, shape that which we are taught. It is people who decide what a tradition is and what it means to them, and Gadamer’s hermeneutic theory explains the process of tradition building, and as a result, interpretation acquisition. We should take comfort in the fact that there is no single and final, right or "true" answer, and enjoy the answers which work well for us as a community, and at the same time understand that the answers may change.
Professor David Hoy
Department of Philosophy
University of California, Santa Cruz
—Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 1994, Continuum, New York, NY
—Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, 1962, Harper Row/Harper Collins, New York, NY