on Gadamer, Hermeneutics, and the Church

9Z7XRBK4N5Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method: refuting the “prejudice against prejudice”

For Gadamer the words truth and meaning should be in quotations: “truth” and “meaning” .  He doesn’t simply discard absolute truth entirely but questions the possibility for an infallible method to access this truth. It must be this way if we really expect to learn anything, he claims, and thus  it must have the capacity to surprise us:

A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s quality of newness.  But this kind of sensitivity involves neither `neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own foremeanings and prejudices. . .

Not occasionally only, but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.  That is why understanding is not merely reproductive, but always a productive attitude as well. . . .Suffice it to say that one understands differently when one understands at all. . .

He’s saying that the meaning of a text goes beyond its author, it means more than it’s author could have known, so it’s always productive, not reproductive. If it was reproductive it would give us a system that we could learn. Rather, it teaches what you didn’t anticipate and what the author did not expect to. The overall purpose of his book is the questioning of ‘prejudice against prejudice ’ – a reader always brings to the text his own foreknowledge, understanding, horizon, and the purpose of reading is for the horizon of the writer and of the reader  to merge together to produce a new horizon. It always goes beyond what the writer intends and what the reader anticipated.

We have assumed that in order to read a text accurately we must rid all preconceived notions, but Gaddamer says we can’t possibly do that.  Going back to Heidegger’s Dasein; we can’t see things completely new, but only in terms of what we already know, and what we bring to the situation. All our knowledge is interpreted, mediated knowledge; that is, we don’t simply see a thing, read a text, and see it for itself, but as it is in our experience. This is Heidegger’s deviation and adaptation of Husserl’s idea of bracketing. Usually, this has been seen as a problem (that you can’t remove your bias) – which is seen as a circle, you’re seeing what you want to see (i.e. eisogesis). What Gadamer and Heidegger are saying, is that you can’t read a text without bringing something to it. The only way arrive at a common understanding is through a common tradition. Tradition protects us from misunderstanding. But Heidegger is saying something more radical than that; we are always bringing something new to a text. We can never arrive at a completely pure knowledge of a thing apart from our own experience.

Perhaps this is how the Spirit speaks to his Church. Indeed, the task of the church in every generation is the read the bible with fresh horizons–horizons handed by the tradition of the Church, the narrative of Scripture and the culture it is calling to life.