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Alterity and Faith in Gadamer's Hermeneutics

(read 10/19 at SPEP, 2005, Salt Lake City)


Hermeneutics thrives around questions of theology. The question of how one should and could interpret scripture reinvigorated hermeneutic theory in nineteenth-century Germany, and a quick bibliographic search of the term "hermeneutics" will produce more theological titles than philosophical ones. Perhaps that's why Hans-Georg Gadamer stressed his hermeneutic theory is "philosophical hermeneutics" (his originally proposed title for Truth and Method).

               It's been said that Gadamer explicitly avoided theological issues to distance himself from that theological tradition and to make clear the philosophical focus of his work.[1]  Gadamer was not a religious man. His mother was religious, though she died when he was four; his father was a scientist and a skeptic, and although Gadamer reacted against his father on a number of points, he shared his father's disbelief in the afterlife.  In addition Gadamer saw Friedrich Schleiermacher's search for "universal hermeneutics," for "the theoretical foundation of the procedure common to both theologians and philologists by reaching back beyond the concerns of each to the more fundamental relation,"[2] as an important advance in hermeneutic theory. Schleiermacher argued issues of theological interpretation differ in degree but not in kind from issues about everyday interpretation—both share a common concern with making the foreign familiar—thus a separate theological hermeneutics is unnecessary.  For all these reasons, and because Truth and Method was written as an attempt to spell out the themes and techniques that dominated Gadamer's teaching activities in the 1950s, we shouldn't expect him to have much to say on theological issues, whether he was explicitly distancing himself from those issues to emphasize philosophical ones, or not.

               Still, there is one place in Truth and Method where we might expect theological themes to arise. That they don't arise tells us something about Gadamer's views on faith and religion. That, in turn, shows us that there may be unique issues in theological hermeneutics and taking these issues seriously either threatens hermeneutics' universality or reveals features of Gadamer's universal hermeneutics that are generally overlooked. I believe the second is the case. By looking at Gadamer's understanding of faith, implicit in Truth and Method and explicit in later writings on religion, we get a richer and perhaps more defensible version of Gadamer's hermeneutics. But above all we get a better sense of the role of alterity in his theory. Gadamer is often criticized for downplaying the importance of difference, especially by philosophers influenced by Jacques Derrida or Emmanuel Levinas.[3] By looking at his account of faith, we can see that there is a place for "radical alterity" in his theory; in fact, while many philosophers remain silent or become mystical when referring to "radical alterity," Gadamer articulates the origin and the conditions of such alterity. But at the same time

The section of Truth and Method where the discussion of faith is conspicuously absent is the discussion of the rehabilitation of prejudices. Under the rubric of taking responsibility for one's beliefs, Enlightenment thinkers drew the conclusion that a belief is only justified if the evidence for its truth is ascertained. So the simple fact that it is customary or traditional to do or believe something is inadequate as a justification for that action or belief. Reason is directly opposed to custom or tradition and is the only means for avoiding the dogmatism that follows from unreflective, tradition based prejudices.[4] Gadamer makes two arguments against this view. First, he points out that reasoning itself is not free from custom or tradition. What we investigate, how we investigate, and when we determine we are finished with our investigations are all shaped by our customs, habits, and practices of reasoning. So reason is not as opposed to tradition as the some Enlightenment thinkers might suggest. On this basis, then, the grounding idea that beliefs and actions are only justified if they are justified through reason is itself a prejudice—a prejudice against prejudices.[5] Second, some Enlightenment thinkers failed to properly understand the nature of authority. They recognized the appropriate distinction between belief gained through reason and belief gained through authority, but failed to see belief on authority as anything but dogmatic and therefore incapable of producing knowledge. All belief on authority was seen as "blind obedience." Instead, Gadamer argues, authentic belief on authority is founded on the knowledge of one's limitations and in the privileged epistemic situation of experts; "it rests on acknowledgment and hence on an act of reason itself which, aware of its own limitations, trusts to the better insight of others."[6] Belief on the basis of the authority of custom, habit and tradition, then, is not automatically unreasonable or epistemicly irresponsible.[7] This argument parallels the argument Thomas Aquinas made for the rationality of faith. Faith is distinct from reason in that faith is knowledge gained on the authority of others; religious faith is knowledge gained through the authority of God's revelation. So not only is faith not irrational, it is in many instances rationally required and, at least in the case of religious faith, could never contradict knowledge acquired through reason.

What is striking, and why I bring up this central argument from Truth and Method, is that Gadamer nowhere makes the connection between his argument against the Enlightenment and the medieval arguments for the rationality of faith. He certainly was aware of the Thomistic argument, and often, following Heidegger, used medieval concepts and arguments to check the excesses of the Enlightenment, but not here at a point where its relevance is obvious. To see why he refrained from drawing the connection we need to look more deeply into what he thought faith is and what he thought is unique about religious experience, specifically Christian religious experience. That will give us insights into Gadamer's hermeneutic theory that we may not arrive at otherwise, and provide us the resources to reply to some common criticisms.[8]

               The bulk of Gadamer's writings on religion can be found in the essays "Aesthetic and Religious Experience,"[9] "Religious and Poetical Speaking,"[10] "Reflections on the Relation of Religion and Science,"[11] and "Dialogues in Capri."[12] Gadamer is a classicist and his intellectual debt to the Greeks reveals itself in the two defining features of his account of religion. First religions are connected to myths as being significant, though non-literal, sources of human self-understanding. Accompanying the emphasis on religion as myth comes an emphasis on the close connections between religion and poetry—both on religious and poetic experience, and religious and poetic language. Second, Gadamer recognizes the distinctive, non-Greek features of Christianity. He argues that Christianity's status as a "religion of the book," its view that grace is necessary for faith, and the centrality of the crucifixion make it theologically distinctive and uniquely interesting for hermeneutics. Before we turn to these Christian elements, let's lay out his account of religion as myth and its connection to poetry.

               In "Religious and Poetical Speaking" he writes

The technical term for the form in which religious texts speak is myth. The word mythologein, indeed, has to do with the act of speaking. Myth means a tale to be conveyed and to be verified by nothing else than the act of telling it. . . . Thus the only good definition of myth is that myth neither requires nor includes any possible verification of itself.[13]

According to Gadamer's myths are narrated "stories of the gods"[14] and are not intended to be literally true.[15] When we hear a story from an accomplished storyteller we should have the sense that the story could go on indefinitely, and that next time it is told it will not be the same. This indeterminacy allows for tremendous creative flexibility and even allows the same story to produce a variety of meanings. For although myths are not evaluated on their truth, myths do still reveal meanings to the listeners. They have what Gadamer calls a "Schein des Wahren, . . . the sameness of semblance in which the truth appears."[16] Gadamer will say the same for poetry (which for Gadamer is always written as opposed to myth which is always oral).

Poetry and myth share three characteristics. They reveal something to us about "the fate of man, his expectations and hopes";[17] they stand on their own rather than merely referring to a set of facts; and they remain open to endless interpretation. Gadamer appropriates Valéry's metaphor of currency to explain poetry's autonomy. Paper money is purely symbolic and its value comes from its ability to be substituted and exchanged for objects. Poetry is like a gold coin, useful still, but valuable in its own right, even after all images on the coin marking it as currency have worn off. Poetry does not lose its textual presence in revealing what it reveals. Whatever insights we may gain from a poem, the poetic words retain their power to reveal and also show the potential for further interpretations, just as with myths.

               When religions become text based, as in the Christian emphasis on the Bible, significant changes arise that ultimately disrupt some of the connections between religious and poetic experience. Poems, as well as scripture, are autonomous, "eminent" texts. When one composes a text, as opposed to a shopping list or a speech, one writes with the aim of facilitating communication even in situations removed in place and time from the context of writing. These eminent texts have a different relation to truth than myths have. Eminent texts still reveal, but only through interpretation and explication as in the case of eminent texts we are trying to get the meaning right. One of the classic features of eminent texts is that we can continually read them and learn something new about them. No interpretation seems to exhaust them, and new interpretations always arise providing fresh insights, even if each interpretation claims to get the meaning correct. Christianity, as a religion of the book, requires the extra hermeneutical requirement of interpretation; Gadamer points to sermons as playing this role.
               As a religious text, however, the Bible is written not for everyone but only for believers. This adds a uniquely dialogical element to this text. Gadamer writes that

The gospel message is freely proffered and only becomes the good news for one who accepts it. . . . If the Christian message does represent such a freely made offer, a free promise, which is directed at each of us though we have no claim on it, the task of proclaiming is implied in our acceptance of it.[18]

Acceptance precedes understanding in the case of religious texts. Although there must be a degree of openness to learn from any text, the openness to what may be learned from scripture is conditioned on recognizing it as a revealed text and therefore recognizing that what is revealed is revealed by God. Gadamer calls the unique Christian message a "promise" as a promise must be accepted to be realized. He writes, "the nature of the message, in the religious sense of the Bible, depends absolutely on response from the believer who accepts the assuring or promising message."[19] Although this would seem to apply to any revealed religion based on a text, Gadamer says it is in fact unique to Christianity. Why he thinks this isn't made clear, but he does bring out two distinctive features of Christianity that have extraordinary hermeneutic significance and that may illuminate why he believes Christianity is uniquely a "religion of the book."

               Ordinarily all interpretation involves application, that is, involves the recognition of how the work speaks to us in our lives. Application, then, is the element of self-understanding that accompanies all understanding. The Christian message, according to Gadamer, is so radical that it undermines the possibility of application. We cannot integrate it into our lives and make sense of the message because the Christian message undermines our essential tools for self-understanding. First, Christianity as a promise of salvation requires faith above all else. Merit and the idea that through our works we can put ourselves in a situation where we deserve salvation is ruled out in Christianity. Moreover, the highest requirement, faith, is gained only through grace, through an always undeserved gift from God. Gadamer writes,

It is comprehensible enough that merits alone are not sufficient to guarantee restitution in immortality and the benefits of the Holy God. But that salvation depends solely on this act of faith and belief and on nothing else appears really scandalous, and that is precisely the message of the New Testament. Certainly the notion that only the breakdown of our human self-understanding and our unconditional surrender to the savior—and nothing else—can help us to overcome death and the anxiety concerning death which is rooted in the human soul is highly scandalous and quite unique.[20]

Our self-understandings are always contextualizations and involve the recognition of possibilities for acting and being, but the Christian message undermines the very connection between cause and effect involved in self-understanding. It leaves no act to perform but surrender, with the knowledge that the surrender, if accomplished, will not be accomplished by you, but by God. Gadamer will say that in contrast to poetry, which shows what is possible often in new and revelatory ways, Christianity "shows what we cannot achieve."[21] That is, it shows that salvation in the end is always a gift and never an accomplishment. However, and this should be kept in mind, Gadamer is not a Christian so although he can recognize the distinctive role of the belief in grace for Christianity, he would have to deny that there actually is grace. And also therefore he would deny that anyone has faith, in this sense, since it is dependent on grace. What he does show is that there is a way of comporting ourselves towards something incomprehensible as a promise that shows a kind of openness he is usually taken to preclude.

               The connection between this promise and death is the second unique feature of Christianity, according to Gadamer. The promise of Christianity is a promise of overcoming suffering and death, a promise that is made possible through Jesus' suffering and death. All religions try to make sense of death by turning our attention either toward our own possible immortality or toward the continual "worship" of the dead.

Even a cursory glance at the other world religions shows us that there is one thing which seems never to be wholly absent. Namely, the ubiquitous knowledge of one's own death and at the same time the impossibility of the actual experience of death. This is the exemplary characteristic of what it is to be human.[22]

Gadamer takes up Heidegger's claim that to be authentic we must "be prepared to face anxiety [about our own death],"[23] but emphasizes that inauthenticity in this matter is our constant situation. We cannot understand death or make sense of death, and we certainly never experience our death, so we seek ways of avoiding being faced with the anxiety of death.[24] This situation of knowing of our death (as we know of our finitude) yet not being able to make sense of our death and so being forced to "systematically repress" our awareness of death, is something all humans share, and may even function to form "a true solidarity of all mankind with one another."[25] What makes Christianity distinctive, according to Gadamer, is that the promise of salvation, the promise that death will be overcome, comes through the suffering death and resurrection of God. So rather than displacing our thoughts of death, they are replaced with the idea of God's death. Gadamer writes,

Nature scarcely allows any human being to consent willingly to depart from this life and struggle against death is sustained as long as strength remains. To this extent, the image of a crucified God, which Christianity opposes to all other representations of the beyond or of a possible future life, appears to impose a demand on us which exceeds what is humanly possible. If there is one thing which characterizes life in all its unwavering vigor, it is the inexhaustibility of the will to live which never ceases to desire a future. Can there be such a thing as acceptance of death? Does this not go beyond our human powers? Here we begin to see what it means that our cultural life is dominated by the Gospel of the sacrificial death of the Son of Man which is also the son of God, which presents the true redemption, superior to all other promises of salvation.[26]

Gadamer says that only this approach to overcoming death avoids being "one great flight from death,"[27] but the cost is that it remains in the end—both because it is about death and it is made possible through a faith itself humanly impossible—beyond understanding.

               We can see now why Gadamer didn't take his rehabilitation of authority in Truth and Method as a recovery of the Thomistic account of faith. What is so compelling about faith as knowledge from authority is that it holds religious faith to be purely rational (since we should always believe those who know better than us) and continuous with our everyday practices (since we often, perhaps more often than not, acquire knowledge through authority). Faith as knowledge through authority doesn't undermine our ability to understand ourselves, but always confirms or enhances our self-understanding: a view quite different from Gadamer's.

               The first philosophical conclusion we should draw from Gadamer's reflections is that if hermeneutics specializes in the process of mediating the foreign and the familiar, there are cases where hermeneutics is required more than ever as the experiences or doctrines are so foreign they cannot be understood. "Radical alterity" is not the failure of hermeneutics, but the requirement of a never ceasing hermeneutics. Myths open possibilities of infinitely new retellings; eminent texts and poems are infinitely interpretable; but death, grace and salvation fully transcend our grasp as they undermine the integration of understanding and self-understanding. According to Gadamer the only response is ever more interpretation. The more general and more significant conclusion deals with a place for alterity in Gadamer's hermeneutics. If there are experiences that by their very nature interfere with self-understanding, then we have experiences that require interpretation but that can never be fully understood. Grace and death are the examples Gadamer employs, but the template for introducing other experiences is in place in his theory. One might appeal to the "face of the Other," a la Levinas, or the "trace," a la Derrida, but either way Gadamer's reflections on faith provide new clarity about how one might think about radical alterity and about interpreting experiences that preclude understanding.



                                                                                                                                                      David Vessey

                                                                                                                                                      University of Chicago

[1] He acknowledges his reluctance to profess his own beliefs in an interview in Radical Philosophy (69 [January/February 1985]: 27–35).

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York, NY: Crossroad Press, 1989), 178.  Hereafter TM.

[3] John Caputo has written that "there are limits on Gadamer's notion of alterity" (More Radical Hermeneutics [Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 2000], 43); Robert Bernasconi argues that "the conceptions of dialogue that [Gadamer] does select tend to have the common feature of diminishing alterity" ("Alterity and the Hermeneutic Ideal" in The Specter of Relativism, ed. Lawrence Schmidt [Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1995], 180) and in the recent volume of feminist interpretations of Gadamer the most frequent criticism seems to be that "Gadamer fails to address the pertinent questions of alterity and power" (Veronica Vasterling, "Postmodern Hermeneutics? Towards a Critical Hermeneutics," in Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer, ed. Lorraine Code [State College, Penn.: Penn State Press, 2003], 178)

[4]  Gadamer defines "prejudices" as implicit or explicit judgments "rendered before all the [relevant] elements of the situation have been finally examined" (TM, 270).

[5] Gadamer himself doesn't, but one might take this conclusion one step farther and point out that the across the board dismissal of the epistemic importance of prejudices is a performative contradiction.

[6] TM, 279.

[7] Though simply appealing to tradition is rarely sufficient. Gadamer himself writes that "The idea that authority and tradition are something one can appeal to for validation is a pure misunderstanding [of my view].  Whoever appeals to tradition or authority will have no authority. Period. The same goes for prejudgments. Anyone who simply appeals to prejudices is not someone you can talk with. Indeed, a person who is not ready to put his or her own prejudices in question is also someone to whom there is no point in talking" (Gadamer in Conversation,[New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001], 43).

[8] There are only two articles written on Gadamer's philosophy of religion, Fred Lawrence's "Gadamer, the Hermeneutic Revolution, and Theology" in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer (edited by Robert Dostal [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], pp. 167–200), which unfortunately is more on Heidegger than Gadamer, and Jens Zimmerman's "Ignoramus: Gadamer's 'Religious Turn'" in Symposium (Vol. 6, No. 4, 2002) 203–218, which is based on an interview conducted with Gadamer right before his death.

[9] In Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, ed. Robert Bernasconi and trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 140–153. Hereafter RB.

[10] In Myth, Symbol and Reality, ed. Alan Olson (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 86–98. Hereafter RPS.

[11] In Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hermeneutics, Religion and Ethics, trans. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 119–127. Hereafter HRE.

[12] In Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, eds. Religion (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 200–11. Hereafter Capri.

[13] 92. Italics his.

[14] HRE, 126.

[15]  Written myths, for example the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic are not considered genuine myths but instead belong to the class of texts. The key distinction is between oral traditions and written texts.

[16] HRE, 126.

[17] RPS, 92.

[18] RB, 148.

[19] RPS, 93. In "Culture and the Word" (in Hermeneutics and the Poetic Motion, ed. Dennis Schmidt [Binghamton, NY: Center for Research in Translation, 1990]) Gadamer distinguishes three "modes of discourse": "There is the questioning word, there is the word of wisdom, and there is the word of forgiveness and redemption" (20).  The first relates to scientific inquiry, the second to poetry, the third to religious "promising," particularly in forgiveness and redemption. Both acts overcome an otherwise unbridgeable distance between persons. Forgiveness comes only out of the recognition of futility and thus it is given only after, in a sense, it is no longer necessary. "That is the only forgiveness that counts, a word that no longer need be said because it has already paved the path from the one to the other, because it has already overcome the discord, the injustice and all that it carries with it, that has divided us, and it has done this by means of that which the word begets" (22). Reconciliation shows the always present possibility of something affirming arising out of the overcoming of seemingly unbridgeable differences. "Only by means of reconciliation is otherness, the unliftable otherness that separates one from another, overcomeable, even lifted up to the point of a wonderful reality of a life and thought marked by communality and solidarity" (22-23).

[20] RPS, 97.

[21] RB, 153.

[22] Capri, 205.

[23] Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Enigma of Health: The Art of Healing in a Scientific Age, trans. Jason Gaiger and Nicholas White (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 157. Hereafter EH.

[24]  On page 97 of Dialogue and Deconstruction (eds. Diane Michelfelder and Richard Palmer [Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989]) in the "Letter to Dallmayr" he writes "Self-understanding is perhaps a misleading term that I have used and in which I found a natural connection with modern protestant theology and also with Heidegger's own linguistic tradition. However that may be, this word does not refer at all to the unshakable certainly of self-consciousness. Rather, SelbstverstĢndnis has a pietistic undertone suggesting precisely that one cannot succeed in understanding oneself and that this foundering of one's self-understanding and self-certainty should lead one to the path of faith. Mutatis mutandis this applies to the hermeneutical usage of this same term. For who we are is something unfulfillable, an ever new undertaking and an ever new defeat. Anyone who wishes to understand his or her being is confronted by the simple unintelligibility of death."

[25] EH, 67. On page 283 of the essay "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person (Continental Philosophy Review, 33:3 [July 2000], 275-287) he writes "In my opinion—in an age in which all traditions dissolve and there is no longer an uncontroversial consensus—Heidegger is basically right to pursue this goal by assuming no other ground for solidarity than that one in which all humans are necessarily united: the borderline situation of each individual's dying and death." He then adds, "Even this, we might well note, is an assumption restricted to a Christian culture. In fact Heidegger's distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity is also restricted to this assumption." In his interviews with Jens Zimmerman Gadamer emphasizes these universal psychological roles of religion as providing a possible common ground for inter-faith dialogue. See "Ignoramus: Gadamer's 'Religious Turn.'"

[26] Capri, 208.

[27] RB,151.

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