Lessons From History III: Gadamer’s Truth and Method

I have been teaching a graduate seminar (with my colleague Stephen Pender from the Department of English) on Gadamer’s Truth and Method.  How badly do universities (and society at large)  need reminding of its central argument:  thinking is an on-going collective project in which ideas, not individual subjects, (and certainly not provincial education bureaucrats) lead!  To the number lover, the learning outcome checker, the metric man his argument will no doubt sound unintelligible, even irresponsible.  “BUT THERE IS NO OUTCOME,” they will shout!  Precisely.

And truthfully, for there is no final outcome to any real process of thought.  Where does science stop?  Where does literature stop?  Where does philosophy stop?  Art?  Our ordinary conversations?  Friendship?  The law?

“But, but, but, people need to be able to formulate well-formed sentences and draw inferences and analyze natural language expressions into their logical structures.  They need to know how to test an hypothesis and write up a lab report.  Above all they need to be able to prove to EMPLOYERS in the REAL WORLD  that they have JOB READY SKILLS.  Have a conversation on your own time.  In school, prove to the TAX PAYER  that something useful is being accomplished.”

But there are different meanings of useful.  A fork is useful, and who would argue against forks?  But being able to point out to the lover of forks that one can also eat with chop sticks, that is a different type of useful.  And being able to tease out the underlying principle– that what seems normative and unquestionable to an “us” is  questionable to a “them”  who are not necessarily wrong for being different– is also useful.  And being able to go further, to draw the us’s and them’s into conversation (as opposed to war)  so that each can explore in dialogue their differences (and perhaps discover commonalities), is more useful still, but not a mechanical result of applying a technique.  That type of usefulness requires understanding.

Before one can learn anything, even the most mundane task, one has to pay attention and give oneself over to a process that one does not control.  You cannot even tie your shoe just how you would like, but have to follow the sequence that the nature of laces demands.  If you do that, then you will learn to tie your shoes, and then will be able to tie any set of laces you subsequently encounter.

When we leave the realm of shoe tying and the like (simple tasks that can be accomplished by following rules) for the problem of understanding the natural and social world and intervening in it politically, artistically, philosophically, or scientifically, a new problem emerges.  At their highest levels (and it is at that level we should be studying them in university)  these interventions are no longer a matter of following the rules, but either extending their application to new domains, testing their efficacy and legitimacy, or inventing new rules entirely.  Someone please explain to me what the rule is for inventing new rules.

There is none, but only intellectual preparation and the productive spontaneity into which the prepared mind inserts itself.  The analytical and critical skills that everyone gets so fussed about are the ground work, the preparation that students require to start thinking for themselves, but real thinking for oneself is productive spontaneity, and it cannot be measured but only lived.

Gadamer helps us understand what living the productive spontaneity of thought means with his analysis of play, conversation, and the dialectic of question and answer. Drawing on Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Gadamer sees play as a form of activity in which, to achieve the desired outcome, the player must give themselves over to the game.  The rules of the game define the parameters of playing, but they do not determine any particular move.  Nor are moves determined imperiously by the players acting instrumentally as individuals.  Play involves creative adaptation to the state of the game:  the best players are not those who try to “force” the play but those who are able to “read it,”  i.e., see what the state of play at that moment in time permits  and encourages as the best move.  Players get caught up in the game; their creativity as players depends upon understanding the state of play at any given moment.

The value of play as a human activity is not measured by winning or losing, or individual statistics, but by the freedom we find in giving ourselves over to the process.  Freedom from what?  From the rule of narrow instrumentalism in our creative activity.  Schiller was interested in play from the standpoint of understanding how art is made.  He argued that the uniqueness of artistic production is that it is not dominated by a specific, determinate goal whose conditions of success can be specified in advance.  A craftsperson making a chair might work from blueprints and knows when the chair is finished.  The painter, by contrast, must struggle with her medium:  she might have an idea in mind when she starts out, but as the painting works itself out the original idea will evolve and develop.  In this way artistic creation depends upon the creative mind and hand allowing themselves to adapt and respond to the work as it “plays out.”

In Gadamer’s view, play not only captures the process of artistic creation, it expresses the nature of thinking.  In all genuine thinking, thinking through a problem or subject, the mind is not in control the way a driver drives a car but must give itself over to the investigation or conversation. The subject matter leads and where it will take people no one can say in advance.  Thinking is inquiry, and inquiry must go where the ideas lead.  “To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented.  It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.  Hence it is an art of testing.  But the art of testing is the art of questioning.  For we have seen to question means to lay open, to place in the open.” (Truth and Method, 2nd Revised edition, p. 367).  To lay in the open means to unsettle, and to unsettle is the condition of being receptive to different approaches living problems.

Hence, the problem with demanding a specific outcome as the sign of successful teaching is that it  turns a process of opening the real to questioning into a closed system of technical competence.  Of course, technical competence across a range of abilities is essential to all forms of human action:  there is no question here of ignoring the importance of demonstrating analytical and synthetic and critical abilities.  What Gadamer helps us see, rather, is that at the highest level thinking is not ‘for’ anything else (economic gain, political conviction, etc.,) but is required for there to be any human society at all, i.e., any context in which this or that action, this or that competence, is of any value at all.  If everything is tied down and exhausted by a technical competence whose only value is instrumental to some measurable purpose, then human life as a finite experience of being open, present, and active ceases to self-validating.  In that way it loses not only its spontaneity, but also its essential freedom in relation to its own future, which, in order to really be a future, must unfold and not be progammable in advance.

A related argument can be made in response to the attempt to reduce the value of intellectual work to the quantity of publications and citations.  The attempt to asses value independently of actually studying the work, as a function of an algorithm and not human understanding, is a species of madness only a bureaucrat or administrator could think valuable.  It is a sign of the decadence of the culture that the people who think and create for a living are seduced by this category mistake and trip over themselves to boast about their numbers on some ranking or other as if that somehow validates their work.  Will Noble Prizes now be awarded to the person with most citations each year, or the most sales, in the case of literature?

(If you are an academic and that sounds absurd, ask yourself why, and start defending peer review again).

In reality– if we can still risk the term– the quality of thought, whether scientific, philosophical, or artistic, is not a function of short term responses, but by the extent to which it identifies or overcomes problems that impede further thought and action.  Often times the most penetrating thought and the most revolutionary discoveries and creations take time to break through the barriers of established conventions and hierarchies.  To focus on some league rankings form the recent past cannot tell us anything about the future, which is where the value of creations prove themselves.

Of course, most of us are not unrecognized geniuses and most of us will fall short of ever being world-historical figures.  Nevertheless, the quality of our thought is never a function of how many people read it or cite it, but a function of how perceptive, cogent, lucid, and, yes, useful it proves to be.  In every case, quality thinking must demonstrate some degree of independence from the given.  What distinguishes the derivative and banal from the worthwhile is that however vast or small the influence, worthwhile thought brings something new to light.

To do so, the thinker has to tap into the living spontaneity of thought as that force which frees us from servitude to the given.  It is this spontaneity that Gadamer reminds us of, and it is this spontaneity that is under dire threat today.

4 thoughts on “Lessons From History III: Gadamer’s Truth and Method

  1. Hi Jeff. First of all, thank you for introducing me to Gadamer! I like how he thinks in relation to looking at plays, art, “play” and so forth as both epistemological and methodological; these are potential developments I think in the area of “indigenous philosophy” (of which most knowledge comes from a prescriptive kind of philosophy) in which we personally draw deeper meaning upon reflection.

    I don’t pretend (as an undergraduate philosophy student) to grasp the many levels I can sense from your article, but certainly I picked up that thought is a collective process and thought does not lead to a limited conclusion. This, I think, is very helpful in thinking about non-western philosophical frameworks and traditions. Like Shopenhauer (spelling?) who first looked at Hindu Vedic traditions, I think Gadamer is onto something.

    Bruce Ferguson

    • Hi bruce,
      Good to hear from you again. Gadamer is a very important philosopher, one with a lot to teach the present moment (when science claims absolute competence to decide what is true across all domains. Of course, it is supreme in its own relam (of measurable phenomena) but this hardly qualifies it to pronouce on the truth of art, morals, politics, or ulitmate purposes. Truth and Method is a chellnging book, but he also has written a number of short essays that are more accessible).

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