Playing with Gadamer

“What man needs is not just the persistent posing of ultimate questions, but the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now.” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method [trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall; 2nd rev.ed.; New York: Continuum, 2002], p.xxxviii).Gadamer

In my “leisure” reading, I’m working through a number of volumes dealing with interpretive theory and the history of Biblical hermeneutics. One of these volumes is Stanley E. Porter & Jason C. Robinson’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011). Porter and Robinson provide biographical context to each of the influential theorists which are included, like Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Derrida, Thiselton, and Vanhoozer. Among these (and others), they discuss the philosophical hermeneutic of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

What strikes me is Gadamer’s sense of “play” (Spiel) in relation to what he describes as the “fusion of horizons” (the interplay of the horizon of reader with that of the text where neither is unaltered by this discourse). The rejection of notions of abstract objectivity and duly the rejection of total personal subjectivity are key. Gadamer tries to offer a more realist approach that believes the two horizons work in a dialectical interchange.

“Gadamer’s hermeneutics is concerned with establishing a dialectic or open-ended questioning and answering between the past and present, and between the world and the interpreter. Knowledge is about more than simply taking a good look to see what is there. It is a product of asking sincere questions that we do not already know the answers to, answers that may surprise and even disappoint our expectations.” (Porter & Robinson, Introduction, p.80).

For Gadamer there can be no getting at another’s meaning (text, art, conversation) apart from genuine interplay between the horizons: an openness to the “other” that cannot predetermine answers  to the questions without failing to genuinely interact toward fullest understanding.

“Understanding is more than merely re-creating another’s meaning. It occurs when we appreciate questionableness and open-endedness, and when we begin working out available possibilities.” (Porter& Robinson, Interpretation, p.101)

Further, this pertains to the study of Scripture. We cannot (following Gadamer’s proposal) approach Scripture for understanding apart from an openness to hear answers and be asked questions which we could not have imagined beforehand and may not even immediately agree with. “[T]o read a biblical passage and allow the text to speak for itself may mean that the interpreter comes away from it frustrated and disappointed because what was said was not expected or desired. Such is an indication of a genuine play, dialogue, and an encounter with difference that offers new truth” (Porter & Robinson, Interpretation, p.94).

This was readily apparent in the college course I taught last semester on the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. If one can read these books without being troubled about the world and the God of Israel who is the maker of heaven and earth, then was has not truly taken care to interact with these texts. This account of Israel and her God intentionally disturbs our consciences. It stirs us to question what we think we know about this God.

So what do you think? Does this “fusion of horizons” via the openness of genuine interplay help your thinking about how best to understand Scripture?

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2 thoughts on “Playing with Gadamer

  1. I’m curious if you’ve read the first 145 pages of NT Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God? In it he lays out his ground zero method for ‘doing’ history, or ‘reading’ history, and in effect, reading scripture. He calls it critical realism and it sounds very similar to what you’re describing, maybe, if I’m understanding correctly.

    As far as interplay – yes. The text and the reader are both engaged and active, bringing their own stories to the experience (symbols, preconceived ideas, expectations, etc.). As far as ‘openness’ I’m not sure if we can achieve that – is there anyway to do or read history outside of how it is done? What is Porter & Robinson proposing as this method of openness? (NT Wrights would be is approach called critical realism)

    HOpe I’m falling this entry right, if not, sorry! Just stumbled upon your blog and enjoy reading – thanks.

    • I have indeed read Wright’s ‘New Testament and the People of God.’ I found his approach very helpful for thinking through my own (which essentially follows his and the likes of Kevin Vanhoozer). I think you are correct in noting the similar aims in Gadamer and Wright. Gadamer has been tremendously influential for many.

      As to openness…it is an ideal that is always to be attempted, but remains something always underway. It is not an arrival (at least in our current state of being), but a journey. If that makes sense.

      And Porter and Robinson are simply sketching other’s views and offering only tangential critique, usually by way of other authors referenced in this volume. I have to admit I’m only half through it so I’ll wait till the end to see what kind of overall conclusions might be drawn (if any, since this functions more as a surveying introduction).

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