from the editor of The Critical Tradition's introduction to "The Elevation of the Historicality of Understanding to the Status of Hermeneutical Principle ( in Truth and Method, 1960)
Gadamer's philosophical field is usually called "hermeneutics," from the Greek god Hermes who was associated with hidden writings, codes and mysteries. Hermeneutics is a study of how people make interpretations out of coded texts. The field dates back to late eighteen century when it was becoming clear that the most important text of all - the Judeo-Christian Bible- was a compilation of a number of sources by various authors who had quite disparate moral and literary intentions. It became quintessentially important to theologians, particularly Protestant theologians, to evaluate one interpretation or method of interpretation against another, in order to develop a sense of how and how far interpretation of texts could be trusted. Today, of course, hermeneutics is a major issue in relation to secular literary as well and biblical texts: the question of whether it is possible to achieve an "objective" interpretation of a particular literary text, or to develop criteria by which one interpretation can be preferred to another.
Gadamer entered the debate over hermeneutics in reaction to the post-Kantian hermeneutic theories associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1778-1841) and Wilhelm Dilthey (133-1911). Schleiermacher argued that the interpreter's job is to place himself in the position of the author, to project himself into the author's subjectivity, and in that way try to understand not only the author's intended meaning but also meanings that may have not been present to the author's consciousness. Dilthey saw more clearly than Schleirermacher that historical change was involved in the problem of finding the author's meaning, that the reader had to seek out the mental structures authors create in accordance with the demands of their world-views, which are the world views of their age.. Both Schleiermacher and Dilthey argued that the business of the interpreter of texts is to clear his or her mind of the prejudices and the mental detritus of the present age, so as to be able to enter, with a clean mental state, the world of the author. For Gadamer, such a clean slate - the "reading-degree-zero" that Dilthey postulated - can never exist, because one's consciousness is defined by, and therefore cannot get outside of, the culture one inhabits. Objective truth is therefore impossible. When one exists in the world, one automatically perceives the world - and its texts - through the "horizon" of meaning that the culture of the present moment provides.
Whereas Gadamer's metaphor of the "horizon" suggests the limit of vision imposed by one's physical position in space, he argues that our mental horizons are limited not by space but by our position in time.
The keys to interpretation, for Gadamer, are the very prejudices through which one reads. The English word prejudice has a pejorative cast, summoning up thoughts of a kangaroo court that judges and condemns before it has heard the facts. But the German word Gadamer uses Vorurteilungen, literary "fore-understandings," has nothing of this juridical flavor. Gadamer claims that without the fore-understanding our prejudices provide it would be impossible to achieve any effective-historical understanding of the past. For Gadamer, the voices of tradition and authority that can be barriers to scientific discovery are, in the human science, a part of what constitutes us as historical beings living in a world of time.
As the result of our interaction with the text, we as readers not only come to understand the text better, we also come to understand ourselves better, in that we become more conscious of the historical place (horizon) from which we interpret. We use the tradition, and in using it we remake it as something new. Consequently, the "prejudices" or "fore-understandngs" through which we interpret texts of the past are not a fixed set of ideas but are themselves constituted and altered by our use of them.
All this seems to suggest a rigid division between the "human sciences", where truth is the product of an inevitably subjective interaction between the text and reader and the "hard sciences", which depend upon an objective scientific method, where the observer has no influence on what he or she observes. But phenomenological approaches to science, such as that of Thomas J. Kuhn, have suggested that the vaunted objectivity of science is only an enabling myth, and that something like Gadamer's notion of "fore-understandng" - in the shape of the "paradigms" that define scientific problems and the methodologies of the investigation - plays exactly the same role within scientific discovery that it does in historical or literary interpretation.
excerpts from the text:
When we try to understand a text, we do not try to recapture the author’s attitude of mind but, if this is the terminology we are to use, we try to recapture the perspective within which he formed his views. But this means simply that we try to accept the objective validity of what he is saying. If we want to understand, we shall try to make his arguments even more cogent. This happens even in conversation, so how much truer is it of the understanding of what has been written down that we are moving in a dimension of meaning that is intelligible to itself and as such offer no reason for going back to the subjectivity of the author. It is the task of hermeneutics to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not mysterious communion with souls, but a sharing of a common meaning. . .
The task of hermeneutics has always been to establish agreement where it had failed to come about or been disturbed in some way. The history of hermeneutics can offer a confirmation of this if, for example, we think of Augustine, who sought to relate the Christian gospel to the old testament, or of early protestantism, which faced the same problem or, finally, the age of enlightenment, when it was almost like a renunciation of agreement to seek to acquire “full understanding” of a text only by means historical interpretation. It is something qualitatively new when romanticism and Schleiermacher ground a universal historical consciousness by no longer seeing the binding form of tradition, from which they come and in which they stand, as the firm foundation of all hermeneutical endeavor…
Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged, because it separates, but it is actually the supportive ground of process in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome . . . the important thing is to recognize the distance in time as positive and possibility of understanding. It is no a yawning abyss, but it is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us. . .
If we are trying to understand a historical phenomena from the historical distance that is characteristic of the our hermaneutical situation, we are always subject to the effects of effective-history*. It determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about and what will appear to be an object of investigation, and we more or less forget half of what was really there – in fact, we miss the whole truth of a phenomenon when we take its immediate appearance as the whole truth.
Understanding [which ] is, essentially, an effective-historical understanding.