Truth, method, and transcendence

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    In one of the most methodologically significant passages of Truth and Method, Gadamer writes, To be historically aware means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete. All self- knowledge arises from what is historically pre- given, what with Hegel we call "substance," because it underlies all subjective intentions and actions, and hence both prescribes and limits every possibility for understanding tradition whatsoever in its historical alterity. This almost defines the aim of philosophical hermeneutics: its task is to retrace the path of Hegel's phenomenology of mind until we discover in all that is subjective the substantiality that determines it.1 It would be tempting to read this passage as a reinvocation of an Identitätsphilosophie in which the journey of prodigal subjective consciousness culminates in a return to its foundation, that is, objective consciousness. In fact, Gadamer celebrates no such return. The passage is a subtle celebration of dialogism which is made possible by a moment of transcendence. The "discovery in all that is subjective (of) the substantiality that determines it" is not the dissolution of subjectivity. To the contrary, it amounts to the philosophical discovery of subjectivity, for reflexive subjectivity is established in dialogical relation to alterity. Subjectivity comes to itself when it realizes that it is grounded in something both more and other to itself, in an alterity or difference that subjective consciousness is able to enter a dialogical relationship with and thus refine its specific sense about the distinctiveness of its own perspective. The ground and justification of philosophical hermeneutics' reflection on this transcendent moment of understanding is the concern of this essay. As we approach the main burden of our argument, let us note Gadamer's statement that knowledge of oneself cannot be complete. Though Cartesian self- reflection can not render the self cognitively transparent, viewing it from the outside can, as it were, afford a completer (though never complete) degree of understanding. Historical reflection on the work of an author can therefore lead to a completer understanding. Gadamer remarks that "it is necessary to understand a poet better than he understood himself."2 This echoes a major motif of hermeneutics often mistakenly attributed to Schleiermacher: "The task is also to be expressed as follows, to understand the utterance at first just as well and then better than its author."3 The reasoning is actually Immanuel Kant's. I shall not engage here in any literary enquiry into the meaning which this illustrious philosopher [Plato] attached to the expression. I need only remark that it is by no means unusual, upon comparing the thoughts which an author has expressed in regard to his subject, whether in ordinary conversation or in writing, to find that we understand him better than he has understood himself. As he has not sufficiently determined his concept, he has some times spoken, or even thought in opposition to his own intention.4 Kant refers to the impossibility of Plato being aware of the full consequences of his conception of ideas or forms. The historian of ideas or the hermeneutician may gain a fuller appreciation of Plato's position because of the way his ideas have subsequently been determined in the work of other thinkers. For Gadamer, this process is dialogical. It is not a historical filling out of the variations on Plato's argument, but rather a reflexive refinement of one's own articulation of the notion of form in critical relation to the positions adopted by other thinkers. Refl exive self- consciousness in philosophical hermeneutics is not a "state" or "condition" but a continuous process. It is, fundamentally, a journey toward articulated differentiality. The full consequences of Truth and Method are diffi cult to determine. Gadamer was fond of the mandarin quip that two thousand years was far too soon to judge the historical significance of a text. That aside, Gadamer's reworking of the concept of tradition is now canonical. The approach to language as the ontological foundation of hermeneutical understanding is probably the greatest achievement of Truth and Method. However, this seminal text is just as important for the questions it raises. Philosophical hermeneutics appreciates that understanding in the humanities is not to be articulated as problem- solving which when achieved brings an end to discussion, but as a process whereby we begin to understand the open- ended nature of certain fundamental questions more deeply. This essay looks more toward consequences to come than consequences established. Three philosophical areas which Truth and Method succeeds in opening but which have hardly been articulated in conceptual terms are (1) the dialogical nature of aesthetic experience, (2) the ontological grounding of the humanities' practices, and (3) a phenomenological reworking of speculative understanding in relation to the question of transcendence. It is with the third of these themes that this essay will concern itself. Metaphysics involves a willingness to confront the otherness of absolute reality, to face the hubris of supposing that humans are the measure of all things and to acknowledge that human existence is dependent on that which transcends it. Remembering and forgetting are at the core of philosophical hermeneutics and its quest for understanding. The principal argument of this paper is that philosophical hermeneutics has a mnemonic force. Though Gadamer and Vattimo openly accept that metaphysics has no plausible conceptual foundation, they argue that intellectual stratagems within philosophical hermeneutics remind us of what is in danger of being forgotten: the ethical dimension of metaphysical speculation. Theologians such as Rowan Williams note the need for a nonexistent, absent, or ideal Other. "The non- existent presence," he writes, "is neither a willed construction nor a theoretical explanation, but a dimension within certain relations that 'shows itself' . . . It belongs within a discourse about what is made possible in relations between persons, yet does not reduce to an account of transactions between two desiring egos."5 He continues: The historical world of negotiation between personal agents with specifi c interests, while it may challenge fictions about timeless interiority and independence, nonetheless does not in itself deliver the possibilities of a freedom or security for the self that will decisively break through anxiety, rivalry and exploitation. It is only something outside the world of negotiation . . . that makes possible the festal abrogation of rivalry, the social miracle.6 According to Williams, a radically noncontingent Other must be supposed in order for human discourse to find a foundation other than that of rival interests. A metaphysics of the Other offers human beings an alternative perspective to consuming systems of desire. In his book The Measure of Things, David Cooper puts a case for metaphysics as a philosophical stratagem to temper the overreaching hubris of humanism.7 Cooper contends that humanist philosophies which deny that beliefs and values are answerable to "an independent order of things" are guilty of the hubris of making humans the measure of all things. The realist, he argues, forwards the counterclaim that unless "a certain metaphysical, indeed theological, realism is true . . . then the vocabulary of science . . . is devoid of reference, and so meaning."8 He claims that unless words and concepts have a purchase on an order of things that is more than human, they will not stay in place but become volatile counters in competing worldviews. If concepts and words do not refer to an independent order, hubris and nausea are the consequence. What is notable about the arguments of Cooper and Williams is that without the supposition of a noncontingent other or order of things, the humanist perspective has little defense against the charge that its values are mere power stratagems. This worry exposes another problem. If the humanist perspective requires the supposition of a transcendent reality to limit its capacity for philosophical hubris, how can it do so and yet remain a humanist perspective? This paper will argue that philosophical hermeneutics offers a satisfactory and insightful way of reconciling its inherent humanist perspective with an appeal to the transcendent dimensions of language. It can do so, we contend, only if any confusion of an objectively existent other order of things with the existent objectivities of the humanly ordered world is avoided.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationConsequences of Hermeneutics
    Subtitle of host publicationFifty Years After Gadamer's Truth and Method
    EditorsJeff Malpas, Santiago Zabala
    PublisherNorthwestern University Press
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Electronic)78-0-8101-6470-3
    ISBN (Print)9780810126862
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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