February 11, 2014
Truth and Method is a big book: a tome, a brick, a doorstop. But the 1960 magnum opus of long-lived German philosopher HANS-GEORG GADAMER (1900–2002) communicates a simple insight: any encounter between text and reader leaves both deeply altered. The celebrated Gadamerian “fusion of horizons” (lip-smackingly euphonic in German: Horizontverschmelzung) argues that the world of the text and the world of the reader come together, sometimes with unsettling violence, and create a new reality between them. In elaborating this basic claim of “philosophical hermeneutics” — a project he inherited from Martin Heidegger, who thankfully did not pass on his Nazi sympathies — Gadamer reworked vexed notions such as prejudice, tradition, ideology, and of course the two clashing concepts of his book’s title. He showed the humanities why chasing after scientific precision was a dead end, not because there were no valid claims to be made about human understanding but because such claims can never stand outside a particular history of belief and thought: the so-called hermeneutic circle. And so “hermeneutics” now enters the lexicon of every smart comp lit grad student, even a few philosophy ones, who can accept that there is no such thing as value-free exegesis. The etymology of this fancy label for interpretation theory, meanwhile, is probably not Hermes, tricky messenger of the gods, but it’s too good a story not to repeat here.
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