Bottom Line Up Front
All propositions are relative, and history matters more than truth.
This is a summary of the introduction to Joel Weinsheimer’s book Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method. That book is a reading of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s 1960 book Truth and Method, which according to Wikipedia is in turn a rewriting of the concept of philosophical hermeneutics as described in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Section titles below are copied from the section titles of Weinsheimer’s text; I wrote this as an assignment for Bill Spelman’s Public Policy Theory class.
Introduction: Hermeneutics and the Natural Sciences
Gadamer refuses to define both truth and method in his book on truth and method. Yep, you read that right. He’s interested in the history, rather than the definitions, of truth and method in the social sciences. There is no “history” of either in the natural sciences; that has been the same since Bacon and Descartes.
The Limits of Method
Objectivity is illusory for Gadamer. Rather, method emerges from a break in Fremheit, or being at one with the world. Surprise → dislocation → desire for understanding. The process begins with the researcher, and with a rupture in her understanding of the world. As a result, natural science’s methods cannot be sufficient to explain the humanities. Method helps us avoid errors, but it cannot “exhaust the sphere of truth… truth keeps happening.”
As researchers, we can either take the Cartesian view that we can overcome our limitations through method, or the Heideggerian view that the condition of “being thrown” (think a pot, perhaps?) is impossible to overcome. “We understand our world before we begin to think about it.” Gadamer links this to the analogy of “hap,” which is the remainder when you try to divide a prime number. My suspicion is that Descartes (or some later Cartesian) equated the hap with the soul. We cannot objectify aware ourselves; we can never get to objectivity. That doesn’t, however, mean that we need not pursue it. Your humble correspondent is reminded of a particular passage from the Talmud, and also of why I have to brush my teeth every morning:
It is not your obligation to complete your work,. but you are not at liberty to quit.
The purpose of method is to do this: To separate subject from object as much as possible. This always fails. If we are observing, there is by definition a relationship between the observer and the observed. And “a text has no consequences except in its being continuously understood [via hermeneutics].”
Method and Truth in the Natural Sciences
Gadamer’s book was a sort of reaction to positivism; he published it despite thinking that the cows were out of the barn and that positivism had already won. Wrong, says Weinsheimer. Positivism won the battle but lost the war. Popper, Kuhn, others all abandoned the truthful for the fruitful. Gadamer’s hermeneutics won the day, so much so that its relevance retreats into the historical background, at least in the humanities. In the natural science, Gadamer holds that inductive logic still works; in the humanities, we must apply the “hermeneutic circle of question and answer.” This gap between the natural and human sciences was attacked by Popper and Kuhn; I think Gadamer lets the natural sciences off the hook too quickly.
One interesting piece of this section: The reference to Popper’s claim that commitment is the enemy of objectivity. What is the policy scholar’s take on this?
This section also regularly references Austrian economic historian Karl Polanyi, who argued that economic truths are embedded in social contexts (substantivism). One discussion between Gadamer and Polanyi, according to Weinsheimer, is whether
Science ceases to be science when it begins to reflect upon itself and the ground it stands on: then it becomes hermeneutics.
There’s an Escher painting of an idea for you. As for human sciences, can they be “scientific” if they are historical (i.e. studying historical, non-repeatable events)?
Method Against Itself
God, some of this stuff is so painful to read. This section begins with the question of whether truth and method can be antithetical without being mutually exclusive. In any case, and back to the Talmudian toothbrushing example from before, Weinsheimer argues that Gadamer owes a debt to Hegel’s synthesis (thesis + antithesis → synthesis), which Gadamer takes aim at. For Gadamer, self-consciousness is never complete but is constantly being completed; synthesis is never achieved. Ultimately, “truth exceeds method, as method itself compels us to admit.”
Still, dialectic must be replaced with dialogue, despite that language is a barrier to absolute truth. Unlike Plato, Gadamer doesn’t believe it is an absolute barrier; just a barrier.
This section, at which point I am in my second beer, descends into a discussion of Euclidian mathematics, perhaps as a way of demonstrating that a statement can, in fact, be proven to be false within a given system. Gotta admit I didn’t get much more out of this chunk of text than that (nor, I suspect, should you).
There follows a section here pitting Gadamer v. Bertrand Russell on the theory of types. You can read more on type theory here. I gave up on p. 49. It does mention Godel, however, which I find interesting only inasmuch as Godel has experienced a comeback in artificial intelligence circles thanks to the book Godel, Escher, Bach. Anyway, here’s the quote from the end of the chapter which I think is a fitting and nihilistic summary of Gadamer’s work:
“If people begin thinking unhistorically [here’s looking at you, you Big Data neo-neo-positivists], that too will happen for historical reasons. It is historical life, not logical consistency, which is the final arbiter and ground of truth.”