Still stuck! (Gadamer)

The density of crucial insights in the passage below is staggering…

Consciousness of being affected by history is primarily consciousness of the hermeneutical situation. To acquire an awareness of a situation is, however, always a task of peculiar difficulty. The very idea of a situation means that we are not standing outside it and hence are unable to have any objective knowledge of it. We always find ourselves within a situation, and throwing light on it is a task that is never entirely finished. This is also true of the hermeneutic situation — i.e., the situation in which we find ourselves with regard to the tradition that we are trying to understand. The illumination of this situation — reflection on effective history — can never be completely achieved; yet the fact that it cannot be completed is due not to a deficiency in reflection but to the essence of the historical being that we are. To be historically means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete. All self-knowledge arises from what is historically pregiven, what with Hegel we call “substance,” because it underlies all subjective intentions and actions, and hence both prescribes and limits every possibility for understanding any 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.

Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. A person who has an horizon knows the relative significance of everything within this horizon, whether it is near or far, great or small. Similarly, working out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.

In the sphere of historical understanding, too, we speak of horizons, especially when referring to the claim of historical consciousness to see the past in its own terms, not in terms of our contemporary criteria and prejudices but within its own historical horizon. The task of historical understanding also involves [NOTE: notice, it involves, but is not exhausted by…] acquiring an appropriate historical horizon, so that what we are trying to understand can be seen in its true dimensions. If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us. To that extent this seems a legitimate hermeneutical requirement: we must place ourselves in the other situation in order to understand it. We may wonder, however, whether this phrase is adequate to describe the understanding that is required of us. The same is true of a conversation that we have with someone simply in order to get to know him — i.e., to discover where he is coming from and his horizon. This is not a true conversation — that is, we are not seeking agreement on some subject — because the specific contents of the conversation are only a means to get to know the horizon of the other person. [NOTE: I cannot overstate the importance of this point. Psychologism, all excessive concern for abstract “selves” divorced from concrete practical life, is pseudo-intimacy. Its hidden purpose is in fact to fend off genuine authentic intimacy, which is experienced in change of one’s own world, which is to say deep self-change. Psychologism is an attitude of spiritual self-preservation — not of continuity of life-process, but of static form. It is the mummification or pickling of the soul in self-image.] Examples are oral examinations and certain kinds of conversation between doctor and patient. Historical consciousness is clearly doing something similar when it transposes itself into the situation of the past and thereby claims to have acquired the right historical horizon. In a conversation, when we have discovered the other person’s standpoint and horizon, his ideas become intelligible without our necessarily having to agree with him; so also when someone thinks historically, he comes to understand the meaning of what has been handed down without necessarily agreeing with it or seeing himself in it.

In both cases, the person understanding has, as it were, stopped trying to reach an agreement. He himself cannot be reached. By factoring the other person’s standpoint into what he is claiming to say, we are making our own standpoint safely unattainable. [NOTE: Historical consciousness and psychologism both reduce the I-Thou relationship proper to its subject of inquiry to the terms of I-It, objective, eidetic, “earth yao” terms. This is practical solipsism — imposing one’s own sole I on everything within its purview — whether or not it also formally asserts theoretical solipsism.] In considering the origin of historical thinking, we have seen that in fact it makes this ambiguous transition from means to ends — i.e., it makes an end of what is only a means. The text that is understood historically is forced to abandon its claim to be saying something true. We think we understand when we see the past from a historical standpoint — i.e., transpose ourselves into the historical situation and try to reconstruct the historical horizon. In fact, however, we have given up the claim to find in the past any truth that is valid and intelligible for ourselves. Acknowledging the otherness of the other in this way, making him the object of objective knowledge, involves the fundamental suspension of his claim to truth.



If I read me, then I read into me:
I can’t construe myself objectively.
But he who climbs consuming his own might
bears me with him unto the brighter light.

– Nietzsche, from The Gay Science


It seems time to repost one of my favorite songs, “The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure”.

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