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Gadamer and the Body Across Dialogical Contexts

David Vessey

(Published in Philosophy Today, Vol. 44 Supplement [2000], 70-77)


               Recently, especially in Gadamerian hermeneutics, dialogue has functioned as a philosopher’s stone.  The theory of dialogue informs phenomenology—“in the exchange of words, the thing meant becomes more and more present”;[1] philosophy of mind—“thinking is the dialogue of the soul with itself”;[2] philosophy of language—“language has its true reality in dialogue”;[3] philosophical anthropology—(quoting Hölderlin) “dialogue is what we are”;[4] history of philosophy—the “hermeneutical reorientation of dialectic (which had been developed by German Idealism as the speculative method) toward the art of living dialogue . . . represented a correction of the ideal of method”;[5] and, naturally, the philosophy of interpretation—“tradition is  genuine partner in dialogue, and we belong to it, as does the I with the Thou.”[6]   Dialogue is so philosophically ubiquitous that Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics’ “modesty consists in the fact that for it there is no higher principle than this: holding oneself open to the conversation”[7] looks like false modesty.  Given the weight put on the power of dialogue, we need to look carefully at its nature to understand how (and if) dialogue can perform all these philosophical functions.  Is dialogue a univocal phenomenon?  Or are their different kinds of dialogue, perhaps sharing certain features but differing on others. Gadamer himself acknowledges that although “tradition is a genuine partner in dialogue”, “a text does not speak to us in the same way as does a Thou.”[8]  We need to understand the variety of forms dialogue can take, and the consequences and limitations of each.  This paper is a small start to that larger project.  I will concern myself here with “dialogues” with works of art.  My conclusion is that although philosophers recently have looked to dialogue as a model for what occurs in the encounter with a work of art (as well as in the encounter with a tradition or a text), because they have failed to appreciate the role the body plays in constituting the encounter, they have failed to sufficiently distinguish the different forms of dialogue.  Once one appropriately considers the role of the dialogical body, one realizes there are important differences between dialogues with other people and dialogues with works of art. Throughout the paper I will focus on Gadamer’s theory of art and dialogue and, in the final part, I will evaluate whether he has an account of the body that could “flesh out” his account of dialogue.  I conclude that he might, but it is not explicit in his writings; still, it may be implicit in his differentiation between what occurs in the presence of static works of arts, and what occurs in the festival-like event of theater. 

               The first part of the paper addresses the applicability of the model of dialogue to the encounter with works of art. There are two main features that facilitate this analogy.  First, in dialogue subjectivity is displaced. One enters into dialogue, but one does not control the progression of the dialogue. A genuine dialogue is a genuinely social act—it is irreducible to explanation in terms of one person’s activity.  Dialogue is a form of play, and in play “the real subject of the game is not the players, but the game itself.”[9]  Gadamer claims that the give and take of dialogue operates on the model of question and answer. We are always interpreting the content of an exchange as a viable answer to a legitimate question. This turn raises new questions requiring new answers. Just as the question and the answer belong together, so do the exchanges of interlocutors.  Still, it would seem that such a model would not apply to works of art, for the “interlocutor” in this case is an inert object.  


But how it is with artwork, and especially with the linguistic work of art?  How can one speak here of a dialogical structure of understanding? The author is not present as an answering partner, nor is there an issue to be discussed as to whether it is this way or that. Rather, the text, the artwork, stands in itself. Here the dialectical exchange of question and answer, insofar as it takes place at all, would seem to move only in one direction, that is, from the one who seeks to understand the artwork . . .  [However] the dialectic of question and answer does not here come to a stop. . . . Apprehending a poetic work, whether it comes to us through the real ear or only through a reader listening with an inner ear, presents itself basically as a circular movement in which answers strike back as questions and provoke new answers.[10]

In the context of art as well as dialogue, Gadamer emphasizes the role of play in the experience of works of art. To avoid the subjectification of aesthetic judgment, Gadamer argues that the event of the aesthetic experience occurs in the exchange between the viewer and the work—not simply in the viewer and not simply in the work. This play, which manifests all the elements of play tied to the displacement of subjectivity, is the being of art. Art plays, but playing requires players and the play of art only occurs in the presence of a spectator. There is a dialogue between work of art and spectator that displaces the subjectivity of the experience; therefore we have met the first criterion.  

               What occurs in play, according to Gadamer is presentation. Having the effect of making something present is the second criterion of dialogue. Dialogue is driven by the subject matter to reveal something new about it to the interlocutors. In a crucial way Gadamer’s account of dialogue functions like Husserl’s phenomenological reduction: it is the means by which it becomes possible for things to show themselves to a subject. It is likewise in the experience of art. As Gadamer stresses in Truth and Method, art reveals truth.  However, it would seem that there are severe limitations on what a work of art can reveal. After all, a conversation can continue beyond the original topic showing new connections and producing genuinely new views.  In an exchange with another person, a great number of issues can arise. When we look at a work of art, it may reveal things, but those things are limited by the subject matter of the work. Thus, although dialogue and art reveal things to consciousness, there would seem to be a crucial asymmetry. Gadamer objects to that conclusion.  Against the idea that the content of aesthetic experience is limited Gadamer says,


an artwork is never exhausted. It never becomes empty. . . . No work of art addresses us always in the same way. The result is we must answer it differently each time we encounter it. Other susceptibilities, other attentiveness, other opennesses in ourselves permit that one, unique, single, and self-same unity of artistic assertion to generate an inexhaustible multiplicity of answers.[11] 

Because of the play inherent in the experience of a work of art, it always contains the possibility of revealing something new to us. But to be able to do that, to be such that “[c]onceptual explication is never able to exhaust the content of the poetic image”,[12] requires the possibility of an alterity to the meaning of a work which can never be reduced to simply a projection of one’s conceptions. With the possibility, then, of the experience of a work of art making something present which is both radically different and perpetually fertile, we can dismiss the objection that there is a significant asymmetry here between dialogue with another person and dialogue with a work of art. The experience of art meets the second criterion for being a genuine dialogue.

               Both criteria are central to any account of dialogue, and both are fully present in Gadamer’s account of the experience of a work of art.  Certainly, therefore, it is appropriate to speak of our experience of art as a form of dialogue. Gadamer himself writes that “[a]n encounter with a great work of art has always been, I would say, like a fruitful conversation, a question and answer or being asked and replying obligingly, a true dialogue whereby something has emerged and remains.”[13]   Notice both criteria are met in this quotation: an encounter with a work of art takes the form of a conversation of question and answer, and something emerges from the conversation.

               Still, these features do not exhaust all that occurs in dialogue with another person.  In Excitable Speech[14] Judith Butler brings out the role of the expressive (“performative”) body in speech acts.  She says of dialogue: “If the speaker addresses his or her body to the one addressed, then it is not merely the body of the speaker that comes into play: it is the body of the addressee as well. Is the one speaking merely speaking, or is the one speaking comporting her or his body toward the other, exposing the body of the other as vulnerable to address?”[15]  If we are to take seriously the role of the body in constituting dialogue, then we need to look at how the different modes of body-comportment affect the nature of dialogue across contexts. Not only is openness to new meanings constitutive of dialogue, so is physical openness.  Both dialogue with others and dialogue with works of art require attentiveness, orienting our body towards the person/work, and “tarrying.”  But there is more to human embodied interaction than to that with a work of art.  Gestures contribute to the dialogue with another person in ways they do not with a work of art.  Our attitudes are expressed in our gestures, postures, and facial expressions in ways art works are necessarily oblivious.  Bodily expressions, however, always inform a dialogue between persons. There is a richness found in embodied interaction between persons absent from the encounter with a work of art.  First, spoken engagements are always developed out of and are responding to the bodily engagements between the interlocutors. Second, this embodied interaction is itself dialogical. Notice that gestured interaction meets the criteria constitutive of dialogue.  In the gestured communication the interplay always occurs behind full conscious awareness and in gestured communication something is presented (perhaps, for example, the power dynamics of the exchange through the postures of the interlocutors).[16]  Importantly, this embodied dialogue operates (often subconsciously) to affect the outcome of the verbal dialogue and, as a result, introduces a level of complexity to intersubjective dialogue categorically distinguishing it from dialogue with works of art.

               But why think the difference is categorical?  Perhaps the distinction between dialogue with another person and dialogue with works of art does not rest on a distinction among forms of dialogue, but simply on the information available to the dialogue. In the case of face-to-face dialogue with another person, there is a greater amount of information exchanged; we can read their body language and be in a better position to understand what is being said. This way of speaking—about the exchange of information—is usually misleading, but it does get us to see the concern. A similar objection would be that there are simply two dialogues occurring in the case of the interpersonal interaction—a verbal dialogue and a gestural, perhaps pre-conscious dialogue. Still, then, it is not that something different is occurring, but rather that there is an increased level of complexity. I don’t believe either explanation sufficiently describes what happens in interpersonal dialogue. Neither sufficiently appreciates the relation between linguistic expression and the lived body. Neither accurately represents the way linguistic expression arises out of and is always co-implicated in bodily comportment. The embodied dialogue is not simply an additional dialogue, or an additional source of information, but the condition for the spoken dialogue and the way in which we exist as beings in the world. Moreover, the meanings of the spoken dialogue arise out of and are an expression of our bodily comportment.  The work of art doesn’t choose to enter into dialogue, but a dialogue with another person reveals that a decision has been made, among many other possible actions, and thus reveals a normative dimension to the fact of dialogue that is absent from the dialogue with a work of art. Finally, through this choice to enter into dialogue with another person we necessarily comport ourselves bodily in certain ways. Choosing is an embodied activity. In so choosing, we not only communicate our intention to enter into dialogue, but we communicate a bodily expression of what it means to enter into dialogue with another person. There is then a bodily exchange at the base of the decision to take up the dialogue with another person that is absent from dialogues with works of art.[17]

               So if we agree that the dialogical body structurally affects and distinguishes dialogue with another subject from the dialogue with a work of art, it would make sense to ask whether Gadamer embraces such an account of the body.  In a recent article, “Bodily Experience and the Limits of Objectification” he directly addresses some of the central questions motivating any philosophy of the body: “What does it mean to become aware of the body as the body and to treat it as such? . . . How is the fact of our embodiment related to the mysterious phenomena of reflective consciousness, which is capable of thinking out beyond all temporal and corporeal constraints and even lose itself in the infinite?”[18]  Gadamer’s view there, however, does not progress much beyond the classic distinction between “Leib” and “Körper”—between the body as it is experienced and lived, and the body as it is objectified.  Elsewhere he will write that


Husserl’s analyses concerning the kinesthetic constitution of our bodily being are of exquisite subtlety. However does not the real mystery of our bodily being consist in this, that the actual being of the body is not an object of consciousness? One’s bodily actuality is not what one notices of one’s body and what one senses when one does not feel well. It rather consists in our fully being-given-over to the “here”, to what captivates us, lets us be awake in the actual course of thinking—to speak with Aristotle. Thus the soul is nothing other than this active actuality, this being at work of the body, its energeia and entelechia; and body is nothing other than the soul’s “possibility” in being awake and in thinking. What about “the things themselves” as regards our bodily being?  Merleau-Ponty and Aristotle saw it correctly: the body is nothing for itself, nor corpus.[19]

Gadamer recognizes the unusual nature of the body—that it exists for us in ways quite different than objects in our perceptual field. Rather the body is the condition for having a perceptual field at all and one of the most important constituting factors structuring that perceptual field. Here Gadamer acknowledges two claims which are essential to an account of the body sensitive to the way the body functions across dialogical contexts.  First, the body is in a unique ontological position with respect to the subject; it is neither a mere physical object nor purely part of the subject.  That is why he appeals to bodily experiences as examples of experiences that “cannot be approached through objectivization and treated as methodological objects.”[20] Second, the body is that by which the world is opened for us. It mediates the subject and the physical world. Gadamer writes “[b]ecause the body presents itself as something with which we are intimate and not like an obstacle, it is precisely what sets us free and lets us be open for what is.”[21] But is this yet an account of a dialogical body?  The third feature needed to show the affect of the body in interpersonal interactions is an account of the dialogical nature of the body itself. In the original quotation, Gadamer refers to Merleau-Ponty, and Merleau-Ponty’s “intercorporeality” is clearly a dialogical account of the body. But the key fact for Gadamer is that the body is the locus of the conditions for actuality. What he appeals to in Merleau-Ponty is not the dialogical aspect of the body, but its role in constitution. There is no evidence here—or elsewhere—that Gadamer has an explicit account of a dialogical body. And without that, we shouldn’t expect him to recognize how dialogue structurally varies across these contexts.

               Still, in Gadamer’s theory of art we find a phenomenological distinction that is just the kind of distinction explained by a consideration of the dialogical body in an encounter.  Gadamer speaks differently of theater and of static works of art. Both reveal truths, but in the context of discussing the participatory, festival nature of the theater Gadamer gives special place to the expressiveness of gestures. Such emphasis hints at what one would expect from a sensitivity to the role of the body across dialogical contexts. Gadamer appeals to the festival as an event that manifests all the features of aesthetic experience—play, community, tarrying, and revelation of truth—but which differs from arts works by creating an immediate and intimate unity of creation among the participants. “The genuine experience of the enduring festive character of the theater seems to me to lie in the immediate communal experience of what we are and how things stand with us in the vital interchange between player and onlooker.”[22] Here the dialogical relationship among the theatergoers is different from the dialogical relationship to the work. This vital interchange may be a point in Gadamer’s theory where an account of the effects of embodied dialogue may play out.

               Gadamer expands on his distinction between festivals and plastic or written works of art in his essay “Zur PhĢnomenology von Ritual und Sprache.”[23]  There Gadamer distinguishes between “Mitsamt” from “Miteinander.”  Mitsamt refers to the shared interactions of animals acting “together with” one another. We can see this as applying to George Herbert Mead’s example of the conversation of gestures between dogs. Miteinander is a “sharing together”, a “with-one-another” reserved for the possibility of language use.  Only humans take up their world in a consciously articulate way and share that world with the aim of understanding. Gadamer will even claim that “The basis for all mutual understandings [is] in living with one another [Miteinanderleben]”[24] which implicitly rules out applying the term “understanding” to non-linguistic exchanges. Yet according to Gadamer in this later work, all festivals (here subsumed under the more general term “ritual”) generate a feeling of oneness and are shared activities that unite communities.  They only do so at the level of Mitsamt, not Miteinander.[25]  Gadamer is not establishing a dichotomy between non-linguistic, physical exchanges and linguistic communication aimed at understanding; rather he is reaffirming the established claim that the telos of language is dialogue.  In this context, however, he is connecting it with forms of interaction which are meaningful, but which themselves do not manifest the perfection of language. Richard Palmer is right to say that


Gadamer’s basic position has not changed. It has only taken a step back phenomenologically in order to situate the problem of language not in linguisticality as such but “in the lifeworld where actions as well as speaking are found.” There Gadamer sheds light on the phenomenology of ritual and marks the borderline and the contrasts between language used in ritual and language used in conversation.[26]

The issue Gadamer is addressing here is the one we emphasized earlier about the essential interconnectedness between the pre-linguistic, embodied dialogical interactions and the linguistic communication that arises out of them. But accompanying that realization comes the realization that there is a distinctive form of bodily, dialogical interaction.

               So if one wants to claim dialogue’s role in solving a number of philosophical problems, one must be careful to lay out the differences across those forms of dialogue. The role of the body in dialogue constitutes an important difference; we have seen how it distinguishes dialogue with another person form dialogue with a work of art. We have also seen that Gadamer, though not explicit about the dialogical body has features in his theory which are not only merely consistent with such an elaboration of the body, but may in the end benefit from making the role of the body in dialogue explicit.


                                                                                                                                                      David Vessey

                                                                                                                                                      Beloit College

[1] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XXIV (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), 22.

[2]  The Enigma of Health (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 167.

[3] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 274.

[4] The Enigma of Health, 166.

[5] Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 23.

[6] Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 358.  Hereafter TM.

[7] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 36.

[8] TM, 377.

[9] TM, 106.

[10] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 43-44.

[11] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 44.

[12] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 39.  Consider also on page 43 of the same work, “the work of art distinguishes itself in that one never completely understands it. That is to say, when one approaches it questioningly, one never obtains a final answer that one now ‘knows.’   Nor does one take from it relevant information and that takes care of that!  One cannot fully harvest the information that resides in an artwork.”

[13] “Philosophy and Literature” in Man and World, 18:1985, 250.

[14]  Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1997.

[15]  Excitable Speech, 12-13.

[16] George Herbert Mead develops his influential theory of intersubjectivity on this point: gestures form a genuine dialogue.  He believes that once spoken and written communication are added to the dialogue, the structure of the exchange changes, but never at the cost of eliminating the continuing gestural conversation.

[17] Notice there are more issues here to be parsed out, for example, the intricate differences between actual face-to-face dialogues, and dialogues over the phone or through the mail.

[18] The Enigma of Health  (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 72.

[19] pp. 106-7, “Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Metaphysics” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, (25, no. 2 (May 1994)), 104-110.

[20] Praise of Theory (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998), 29. Interestingly for his (underdeveloped) account of intersubjectivity, he continues: “Similarly, we have seen that the individual's immersion in the various kinds of human and social intimacy does more than merely limit the extent to which we can be reduced to objective observers. It is precisely what teaches us, in our recognition of the other, to recognize reality, and so lets us also acknowledge the reality of far-off times and foreign peoples."

[21] Praise of Theory, 30.

[22] The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 65.

[23] Gesammelte Werke, Band 8 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1993), 400-440.  This has recently been translated by Lawrence Schmidt and Monika Reuss as “Towards a Phenomenology of Ritual and Language” and published in Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, ed. Lawrence Schmidt (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000) pp. 19-50. All quotes will be referenced to that work.

[24] “Towards a Phenomenology of Ritual and Language”, p. 29. Merleau-Ponty will say something similar. “There is one particular cultural object which is destined to play a crucial role in the perception of other people: language.  In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator.  We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit of behavior in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each other in a consummate reciprocity.  Our perspectives merge into each other, and we co-exist through a common world.” (Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), 354)

[25] This division may strike us as too extreme—the pre-linguistic rituals, and the linguistic communication—and indeed it is more simplistic than Gadamer has in mind. Gadamer acknowledges that speaking occurs during ritual, however language is not performing there according to its essence. Picking up on a much repeated theme that language only has its real being in dialogue, Gadamer claims that “the with-one-another [das Miteinander], on the other hand, develops in the true life of language, and that especially in conversations” (“Towards a Phenomenology of Ritual and Language”, 32).

[26] The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 534.


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