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Experiencing tradition versus belonging to it: Gadamer's dilemma.

We "BELONG" TO TRADITION, Gadamer says, (1) and he insists, "The conceptual world in which philosophizing develops has already captivated us in the same way that the language in which we live conditions us." (2) The historical and cultural traditions in which we participate orient us toward our world and form the bases for our assumptions and expectations about how that world works. Understanding is always preoriented; we anticipate the meanings things have for us and we already possess a language for what we understand before we consider it more explicitly. At the same time, Gadamer emphasizes the importance of experiences that thwart our expectations and undermine our assumptions. In this negative sense of experiences, one "has" them; something surprises us in our normal routines and leads us to reconsider the possibilities of the situation in which we find ourselves. Likewise, experiences of historical tradition provoke us to rethink our views and allow us to go beyond the limits of our previous understanding.

These two elements of Gadamer's hermeneutics seem to move in opposite directions. On the one hand, our socialization into historical traditions means that we are part of them and that they set the terms for our orientation toward our world. On the other hand, we can have experiences of our historical traditions in which they surprise and challenge us. Yet if we are part of historical traditions, how can we experience them in this way? If they already orient us how can they also surprise us? Conversely, if they do surprise us, does this surprise not reflect some difference from them, some way in which we are not or are no longer part of them? If Gadamer is to stress the way we always belong to historical traditions, must he not give up on the possibility of experiencing them? In this case, will he not have to question whether we can learn from them to go beyond the previous limits of our understanding? Alternatively, if he is to stress the way historical traditions can surprise us, must he not concede that we possess some independence from them and thus moderate his claims about the extent to which we belong to them?

Gadamer's dilemma here is significant. In the introduction to Truth and Method he claims that his aim is to show "how little the traditions in which we stand are weakened by modern historical consciousness," (3) by which he means methodologically oriented social and historical sciences. Nevertheless, if we can have experiences of our traditions, will these experiences not affect the way we stand or participate in them? How can Gadamer value experience but deny that it has any effect? In his original response to Truth and Method Jurgen Habermas questions whether Gadamer sufficiently appreciates the power of reflection to alter the way we stand or participate in traditions. The question here, however, is whether, in this regard, Gadamer sufficiently appreciates the implications of his own account of experience. (4) He models his account of our relation to tradition on our relations to the Thou or what he also calls the Other. I therefore want to explore the question by examining this relation. I begin, however, with a more extensive account of Gadamer's view of experience.


In the empirical sciences experiences are methodically set up as experiments that are designed to test well-formulated hypotheses. Confirming the results of these tests depends upon the capacity of others to repeat the experience or experiment and to achieve similar results. The significance of any experience thus depends, first, on the strength of the experimental design and, second, on the ability of others to replicate the scientific results. Gadamer does not question the importance of confirmatory experiences. (5) Nevertheless, he is more interested in negative experiences that are not designed and that cannot be repeated. Here experiences are events and even journeys. (6) When one "has" an experience in this sense, it simply happens: we enter into a situation with expectations and assumptions and are suddenly caught up short. A planned action does not go as we anticipated; we are surprised by circumstances that seem to invalidate our assumptions; we prove not to understand someone or something we thought we understood.

In the empirical sciences, our hypotheses serve to delimit the range of possible events in which we are interested. The role of experience is to establish which of these possibilities turns out to be the case. The negative experiences in which Gadamer is interested have a considerably further reach. They do not simply test preset hypotheses. Rather, they undermine understandings and assumptions that we may not have held consciously and need not have intended--or even wanted--to test. (7) Moreover, instead of undermining only specific understandings and assumptions, experiences require us to rearrange more general orientations. "Experience changes one's whole knowledge," Gadamer writes; (8) or as he also puts the point, "it is not simply that we see through a deception and hence make a correction, but we acquire a comprehensive knowledge." (9) When we have an experience, we must rethink not only our understanding of, or assumptions about, the particular event, action, text, or the like, but also the network of assumptions and understandings in which this object is implicated.

Gadamer's model here is Hegel's dialectic, which Gadamer thinks articulates the "reversal of consciousness" that experiences engender. (10) As James Risser points out, this reversal amounts to a double experiencing, "an experiencing of both the world and itself." Indeed, as Risser continues, "undergoing an experience lies precisely in this doubling: consciousness returns from the encounter with the unexpected phenomenon to the framework in which it initially grasped the phenomenon and transforms itself as a result of the encounter." (11) To this extent, Gadamer thinks experiences always involve elements of self-knowledge. They spur us not only to compare our prior assumptions to our new understanding but also to ask what the change in our assumptions says about us. Of course, Hegel thinks there is an end to these refashionings. Experience is progressive; we come to see that what we once saw as comprehensive knowledge is inadequate, and we move from this knowledge to a superior one. We finally reach the end of the progression in absolute knowledge in which our anticipations are equal to their subject matter and that subject matter contains no noncomprehended residue to surprise us. For Gadamer, experience is likewise crucial to our ability to illuminate limitations in our understanding and crucial to our ability to learn. Indeed, in a 1943 conversation with Heidegger, he insists that if he is to "surpass" his "limits," "I must always learn to experience anew." (12) At the same time, he claims that the end product of experience is not the identity of knowledge and its subject matter but, instead, an openness to new experiences. As he explains in Truth and Method,
   The perfection that we call "being experienced" does not consist in
   the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better
   than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be ...
   radically undogmatic; who because of the many experiences he has
   had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well
   equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The
   dialectic of experience has its proper fulfillment not in
   definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made
   possible by experience itself. (13)

For Gadamer, experiences thus disclose our finitude. Being perfectly experienced does not mean that one has reached a "higher form of knowledge," as Hegel argues. Rather, to be perfectly experienced is "to have the insight that all expectation and planning of finite human beings is finite and limited." (14) What experience teaches is a recognition of the limits of prediction and a readiness for yet further experience. The experienced person differs from the inexperienced not in accumulating more knowledge but in acknowledging the historical, finite, and partial character of his or her knowledge. (15) As Gadamer concludes, "Genuine experience is the experience of one's own historicity." (16) Experiences are radical in this sense. They do more than simply change our understanding of a particular subject matter; instead, they provoke interpretive crises, allow us to go beyond our previous hermeneutic limits, and at the same time bring us face to face with our finitude. Against Hegel, Gadamer thus introduces what Donatella Di Cesare calls a "rift into total dialectical mediation. Finitude prevents totalization, blocks perfection, forbids the completion of becoming, and denies both the absolute and absolutism." (17) The experienced person is the person who grasps the Socratic wisdom of knowing that one does not know and therefore remains open to new experiences.

Gadamer insists that not just any object or incident "at random" can supply us with an experience, however. "Rather," he says, "the object must be such that one gains a better knowledge not only about it but about that which one previously thought one knew." (18) In Truth and Method he considers two such "objects:" another person and historical tradition. Moreover, he thinks our experience of them is structurally homologous. We begin with experiences of another person or what he also calls the Thou.


To be sure, although Truth and Method uses the language of I and Thou, (19) Gadamer later admits that it is not entirely fitting. The language suggests that the Thou presents only a problem for the I, a suggestion made worse, he thinks, by Fichte's substitution of the Not-I for the Thou. The language also fails to embody the recognition that the I is itself a Thou to another I. (20) At the same time, in the survey Truth and Method offers of three possible ways of relating to the Thou, the first two reflect just these failures. (21) Indeed, rather than conceding that we might experience the Thou in a way that allow us to go beyond our hermeneutic limits, the first two forms of I-Thou relation try to evade this possibility at all costs.

In the first form, the I adopts an attitude toward the Thou suited to the aims of positive, replicable experiment. In this case, the I is interested only in explaining the causes of Thou's views and behavior and in accumulating knowledge about human behavior in general. The Thou's views and actions either corroborate or refute the hypotheses the I develops on these matters. In either case, however, for the I the Thou is simply an object to be explained. A second way of relating to the Thou regards the Thou as a person rather than a mere instantiation of causal laws. Nevertheless, the I still attempts to preclude the Thou's potential to move outside of the I's initial orientation to it. Here the I claims to know the Thou from the inside out, as it were, and, in fact, to know it better than it knows itself. For Gadamer, such knowledge means that the Thou "is co-opted and pre-empted reflectively from the standpoint of the other person." (22) The I may no longer limit its relation to the Thou to causal concerns; nevertheless, the I has already taken the Thou's measure and found it to be exactly like itself. In both of the first two forms of I-Thou relation, then, the I works to avoid the possibility of the Thou's eliciting negative experiences, disturbing the self-certain scaffold of the I's convictions, or instigating a process of reevaluation. Rather, the I tries either to explain the Thou or substitute itself for the Thou. In neither case does it allow for the possibility that the Thou might educate or change it.

Only on the third, highest form of I-Thou relations does the I no longer shy away from an experience of the Thou and no longer try either to objectify or to arrogate it to itself. Rather, the I relates to the Thou as a source of potentially valid claims. Here the I does not preclude the possibility of experiencing the Thou from the outset. Rather, the I takes what Gadamer sees as an open relation to it. To experience the Thou "truly as a Thou," he maintains, means that we do not "overlook his claim but ... let him really say something to us." (23) Openness to the Thou is dialogic and reciprocal. Indeed, Gadamer insists that "only one who listens is fundamentally open." (24) Listening to others and letting them really say something to us involves acknowledging the potential validity of the claims they raise even if, or especially if, those claims differ from our anticipations of them or from what we assume we already understand. Letting others really say something to us thus also lets us rethink our previous expectations and assumptions. As Gadamer writes in recalling his 1943 conversation with Heidegger, "To allow the Other to be valid against oneself ... is not only to recognize in principle the limitation of one's own framework but is also to allow one to go beyond one's own possibilities ... in a dialogic, communicative process." (25)

The third level of I-Thou relations is thus the most epistemologically adequate level. The I's dialogic openness to and experience of the Thou allows for the disclosure of assumptions the I holds of which it was not aware. In this way, openness and experience free the I to recognize the possible limits of its previous assumptions and to move beyond them. Yet Gadamer thinks this third level of I-Thou relations is also the most ethically adequate. In this regard, the first two levels of I-Thou relations contain a second, moral, deficiency in addition to their epistemological deficiency. (26) The I's self-enclosed self-certainty not only fails to open to the Thou's claims or to allow for the possibility of the Thou's challenging the framework of the I's understanding; the I also fails to establish an ethical relation to the Thou. Following Hegel here again, Gadamer claims that "[t]he inner historicity of all relations in the lives of men consists in the fact that there is a constant struggle for mutual recognition." (27) On the first level, the I deludes itself that its objectifying approach to the Thou can master this struggle. In trying only to explain the Thou's behavior, the I adopts an instrumental relation to it; its ability to explain the Thou's actions means that it can also predict them and that it can employ these predictions to advance its purposes or, at least, to ensure that the Thou does not hinder them. (28) In this relation to the Thou, the I thus denies what Gadamer calls "the dialectic of reciprocity." (29) The I fails to recognize the Other as another I with its own purposes and ends and fails to recognize itself as a Thou to another I. Rather, the I's relation to the Thou is a self-relation, one that sees the Thou only as a means to the I's ends. According to Gadamer, the relation therefore "contradicts the moral definition of man." (30)

The I also denies the dialectic of reciprocity on the second level of I-Thou relations--in this case by taking its own ends for the Thou's. In claiming to know the Thou the I empathizes with it. Yet to the extent that this empathy takes the form of presuming that the Thou's concerns and intentions are identical to the I's, the I erases the Thou's independence and adopts an attitude of what Gadamer sees as a kind of patronizing altruism. (31) He concedes that it may form a necessary part of certain relationships such as those involved in social work or raising children. In these cases, if we substitute our own ends for those of the Other we do so for what we take to be their own good. At the same time, Gadamer thinks this form of relating to the Thou is "reflective" rather than "immediate." (32) In other words, instead of recognizing the Thou in its own particularity, the I looks first to itself. Instead of conceding the reciprocal relation of I and Thou, the I insists that the latter's interests and desires are already what the I takes them to be. Gadamer concludes, "A person who reflects him or herself out of the mutuality of ... a relation alters this relation and destroys its ethical bond." (33)

In contrast, on the third level, dialogic openness to the Thou's claim not only allows for experiences from which the I can learn. It also secures the ethical character of the relationship between the I and the Thou. Indeed, Gadamer insists that "[without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond." (34) He also insists that "belonging together always at the same time means being able to listen to one another." (35) In allowing the Other really to "say something to us," in being open to his claims, we both possess a bond with him and allow for experience. Contrariwise, in remaining closed or "reflecting out" of an immediate response to the Thou's claims, we not only preclude the challenge his claims might mount to our presuppositions and expectations. Equally, we foreclose the possibility of an ethical relationship with him.

This conclusion is an uneasy one. Axel Honneth denies Gadamer's claim that the most adequate epistemological relation to the Thou corresponds to the most ethical relation. It may be, Honneth argues, "that the more we cling solely to the other's individual expressions, in awareness of our dependence, the more richly the other is experienceable in its surprise value." [36] Nevertheless, it does not follow that attentiveness to the other's individual expressions is the only way of interacting ethically with it. Yet Gadamer's equation of ethics and openness involves an internal tension as well. On the one hand, the latter is meant to allow for the negative experiences in which the claims of the Other can confound us and lead us to reconsider our previous views or assumptions. In this way, openness to the Other allows us to surpass our previous hermeneutic limits. On the other hand, our openness to the Other is meant to involve our belonging with it and a genuine bond to it. In this way, openness allows for ethical I-Thou relations. Yet to the extent that these genuine bonds involve close relationships including ties of friendship, for instance, our capacity to experience the Other is surely limited. As Gadamer describes this experience, it involves a "reversal of consciousness" and a new "comprehensive knowledge." Such negative experiences are not mere differences in taste and opinion. Rather, when we experience the Other we experience something more like a transformation. At the same time, if we have a genuine bond to the Other, will our closeness to him not preclude such transformations? Or, rather, to the extent that they occur, will they not affect our relation to it? To the extent that the Other does confound the I, is their bond and belonging together not at risk? If the Thou can reverse our consciousness can it not reverse our consciousness precisely about it, about its character, the kinds of beliefs it holds, the actions of which it is capable and, hence, about the appropriateness of our bond? (37)

Of course, experience can also lead to new bonds between I and Thou. In some cases, dialogue with others leads us to realize that we have underestimated or failed to appreciate the claims to truth they raise. If we now come to rethink our views and assumptions and learn from others in this way, we may also secure a new bond with them or recommit more deeply to an older one. Yet this eventuality does not eradicate the opposite possibility, that the sort of experiences Gadamer describes can rupture bonds. In the reversals of consciousness experiences provoke, can we not reevaluate our relationship with the Other and find that we do not belong together after all? If so, it is unclear how Gadamer can simply assume that the experience of others is always compatible with belonging with them. How can he take for granted that the openness that involves a bond between I and Thou always allows for or survives the openness that involves experience?

To be sure, the connection Gadamer makes between openness and genuine bonds to the Other is somewhat obscure. To maintain, as he does, that "without ... openness to one another there is no genuine bond" may be to maintain that a preexisting genuine human bond with another frees us to be open with him or her. Because we are connected in friendship or some other close way, we can disclose ourselves to one another without fear that our claims will be misunderstood or dismissed. The same also holds for the Other; because of our prior bond, he can raise claims to us. Alternatively, to argue that "without ... openness ... there is no genuine bond" may be to argue only that openness is a condition of genuine human bonds. If so, openness may, but need not, always reflect genuine bonds to the Other. The same ambiguity appears in Gadamer's view of the relationship between belonging together and listening to one another. Does he think we can listen to one another because we already belong together, or is his point that listening to one another is a necessary but not sufficient condition of belonging together?

To take up the first and stronger interpretation, that our mutual and preexisting bonds allow for our dialogic openness to one another, is to situate openness in trust. Because we are bound to one another, we know and trust each other. We can therefore disclose ourselves and our views to one another. (38) In this case, however, either our bond inhibits our capacity to experience one another, or when we do experience one another, we put our relationship at risk. In response to the claims of the Other we may revise our views and assumptions or recommit to them. Yet in neither case is it clear that our mutual trust can always survive the experience. Nor does taking up the second, weaker, interpretation in each case resolve this problem. On this reading, Gadamer's view is that although openness is a necessary condition for genuine human bonds, it need not be sufficient for them. We can therefore be open to one another without either presupposing close ties or inevitably creating them. Because we do not have a relationship to one another, we can experience each other without risking that relationship. Where openness does involve genuine human bonds, however, it remains difficult to see how Gadamer can presume that it can simultaneously allow for experience. How can we experience one another without at least jeopardizing and certainly sometimes breaking those bonds?

In Gadamer's discussion of our relation to historical tradition these questions take on an added significance. The tradition is meant to be a Thou to which we are bound and that we can experience. How can both be possible? And if they are not, what is our relation to historical tradition?


Gadamer's analysis of relations to the Thou is an intermediary step that is meant to connect the experience of the Other to the hermeneutic understanding of the human subject matter of historical tradition. (39) That is, I-Thou relations are meant to show the way in which, properly conceived, hermeneutic understanding is an experience as well, an event that we go through rather than a method that we can control. Indeed, unless this understanding is an experience, it cannot avoid what Gadamer considers the pitfalls of Hegelian philosophy in which anything alien or other is ultimately to be reabsorbed into reason's relation to itself. (40) If we are to be able to go beyond the limits posed by the current parameters of our understanding, as Gadamer urges in his 1943 conversation with Heidegger, there must remain something other to challenge us. Gadamer finds this other not only in the Thou but also in the human subject matter of tradition, in the texts, events, and actions that come to us out of the past and in the ways these texts and text-analogs have been historically interpreted. Taking up the opportunities for surpassing our limits that this subject matter offers requires openness to it; we must neither reduce it to an instance of a general law nor abolish its independence from us; instead, we must allow it to say something to us. Consequently, Gadamer connects each of the epistemological levels he explores of I-Thou relations to parallel modes in our relation to historical tradition.

On the first level of our relation to the subject matter of tradition, the I's attempt to reduce the Thou to an object of explanation corresponds to the "naive faith in method and in the objectivity that can be attained through it" (41) that Gadamer thinks is characteristic of the methodologically oriented social sciences and objectivistic forms of historical study. These sciences approach their subject matter as instances of empirical regularities; they set up well-designed experiments to test hypotheses, or they look for lawlike structures to explain events. By doing so Gadamer maintains these approaches work against the possibility of experience and against the potential that their subject matter might challenge or disrupt the framework of their investigation. Rather, as does the corresponding I-Thou relation, this first form of relating to historical tradition tries to distance and protect itself from any questions that the contents of tradition might raise to its views and assumptions about either those contents or itself. The same effort at self-protection characterizes the second way of relating to historical tradition. On the corresponding level of I-Thou relations, the I takes itself to know and feel just as the Thou knows and feels. In the same way, what Gadamer calls historical understanding presumes it can comprehend a historical process in its own terms and retrace the path of a historical process as it happened. In doing so, it acts to prevent the subject matter of its study from having an effect outside of its own sphere. As Gadamer writes, "We think we understand when we see the past from a historical standpoint--that is, 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." (42)

If each of these first two modes of relating to historical tradition tries to avoid experience, Gadamer thinks each is also problematic. The first mode attempts to objectify the contents of historical tradition as entities separate from the study of them, while the second assumes that it can leap out of its cultural and historical situation to witness the past as it happened. Each relation to tradition thus fails to acknowledge the extent to which its study of the contents of tradition already participates with them in an ongoing historical process. Indeed, each disregards the extent to which its study is already affected by those contents and their after-history or what Gadamer calls their effective-history (Wirkungsgeschichte). (43) If we want to explain a historical event, we do so from a historical vantage point that already selects and understands * a particular sequence of incidents as that event, say, the start of World War I. Insofar as the prior selection of incidents conditions what can count as an explanation of the event, the event and its explanation are already connected to the orientation the study has to it. The study therefore mistakes itself if it thinks its view is a view from nowhere or, in this sense, objective. Nor, insofar as the understanding of an event as the start of World War I is unavailable to its participants at the time of understanding, can the event be retrieved by the quixotic attempt to witness the incidents as they happened. (44) For these reasons, Gadamer thinks that objectivistic social and historical sciences as well as historical understanding are epistemological failures. They may try to avoid negative experiences, but they do so at the cost of misunderstanding the sort of knowledge they achieve.

Gadamer maintains that their self-misunderstanding also reflects an attempt to deny their bonds with tradition. As he does in his analysis of I-Thou relations, he therefore connects the epistemological failures of the first two ways of relating to the tradition with normative failures. On the first level of I-Thou relations, the I views the Thou instrumentally and denies its participation in a dialectic of reciprocity. Likewise, on the first level of relations to the tradition, methodologically oriented social sciences and objectivistic historical sciences deny their ongoing membership in tradition and regard their subject matter as fodder only for their own scientific purposes. Similarly, on the second level, just as the I relates paternalistically to the Thou, historical understanding's attempt to retrace a historical process as it happened assumes a kind of methodological empathy. Historical understanding assumes it can know the past just as or better than it knew itself. For Gadamer this approach is simply an attempt to master and dominate the past in the same way that paternalistic empathy tries to master and dominate the Other. Indeed, reflecting out of our relationship to tradition has consequences that are identical to the ethical consequences of reflecting out of our relationship to an Other. If "a person who reflects him or herself out of the mutuality of ... a relation alters this relationship and destroys its ethical bond," Gadamer insists, "then a person who reflects himself out of a living relationship to tradition destroys the true meaning of this tradition in exactly the same way." (45)

Thus, as he does in considering I-Thou relations, Gadamer sees two failings in the first two ways of relating to historical tradition: first, through what he sees as methodological distantiations they attempt to smooth out the past and prevent an experience of it. Second, they try to reflect out of a relation to tradition and therefore to deny their involvement with it. On the third level, corresponding to the highest level of I-Thou relations, the relation to historical tradition overcomes both failings. First, it allows "tradition's claim to validity" and opens itself dialogically to "the truth claim encountered in it." (46) Here we no longer try to protect ourselves from the possibility of experience but rather recognize the capacity of the tradition to offer us a truth that is "valid and intelligible for ourselves." Indeed, we experience in the tradition a surprise value that can test our views and disclose our assumptions to us about both it and ourselves. Second, we acknowledge our participation in history. In opening to historical tradition, we open not to something alien and divorced from us but to a past we understand from the point of view of its own effective history. In acknowledging this implication in an ongoing history, we acknowledge our bond with and membership in tradition. Just as the third level of I-Thou relations is meant to comprise both experience and genuine human bonds, the third level of relations to historical tradition is meant to allow us to experience it while also acknowledging our genuine bond to it.

Gadamer's account of our openness with regard to historical tradition has none of the ambiguity openness possesses with regard to his account of I-Thou relations. Openness to historical tradition is not a condition of our bond to it but instead a feature of it. Gadamer insists that "[w]e do not conceive of what tradition says as something other, something alien. It is always part of us, a model or exemplar, a kind of cognizance that our later historical judgment would hardly regard as a kind of knowledge but as the most ingenuous affinity with tradition." (47) We can be open to tradition because we are bound to it, because it is the ground of our assumptions and orientations and because we can trust it as we trust others with whom we are bound. Yet if Gadamer's faith in the compatibility of belonging with others and experiencing them seems unjustified, in the case of our ingenuous affinity with tradition, it is difficult to conceive of room for experience at all. If we do not conceive of what tradition says as something other, how can we have an experience of what it says? On the one hand, Gadamer conceives of tradition as a Thou or Other which, like a Thou or Other, is meant to "be such that one gains a better knowledge not only about it but about that which one previously thought one knew." Here, historical tradition has a surprise value that we can experience as long as we are open to it and do not try to foreclose an encounter with its claims by objectifying or empathizing with them. On the other hand, we already belong so fully to the tradition that listening or opening to its claims is indistinguishable from an affinity with it. But, it is now unclear how this openness to its claims also allows for experience.

We seem to have two options. We can insist on the possibility of experiencing the contents of historical tradition in a way that exposes the assumptions relevant to the experience, allows us to reflect on them, and moves us beyond our previous hermeneutic limits. In this case, we will have to conceive of the tradition as something that is sufficiently other or alien that it can surprise us and bring us up short. Alternatively, we can insist on our ingenuous affinity with tradition. Here, openness to tradition is openness to ourselves, to our porousness with regard to tradition and its effective influence on our orientations and assumptions. In this case, however, we will have to give up on the idea that tradition can provide for experiences and permit us to surpass our limits. Given Gadamer's dual concern to show the ongoing strength of historical traditions, on the one hand, and to find a way to surpass our hermeneutic limits, on the other, neither option seems tenable. If we are no longer open to historical tradition in a way that allows for experience, we can no longer confront potential challenges to our convictions and expectations that allow us to move beyond them if necessary. If we are no longer open to tradition as to ourselves, if "we reflect out of it," as Gadamer puts the point, we "destroy its true meaning." It will not suffice here to insist that we can have an experience of one part of the tradition while retaining a connection to other parts. Gadamer's dilemma is that, on the one hand, we are meant to be distant enough from historical tradition that its claims can have surprise value for us and we can experience them. On the other hand, we are meant to be close enough to tradition that "the abstract antithesis between tradition and historical research, between history and the knowledge of it must be discarded." (48) To the extent that we try to reflect out of any part of tradition we deny our prior bond with it.

There is another side to Gadamer's dilemma. On the one hand, he suggests that historical understanding and the objectivistic social and historical sciences simply err in supposing they can reflect out of historical tradition. In presuming that they understand their subject matter empathetically or objectively, they neglect their participation in a historical process in which the past influences their orientation to it, and their ignorance of the future limits what they can see. On the other hand, Gadamer seems to allow that historical understanding and objectivistic sciences can "reflect out" of historical tradition, but he maintains that they do so at the cost of destroying the "true meaning of tradition." Viewed in this way, Gadamer's first argument is that historical understanding and the objectivistic social and historical sciences have an epistemological problem insofar as they do not understand the kind of knowledge they achieve, namely, partial knowledge influenced by the past and subject to change in the future. But, according to his second argument, they have a normative problem insofar as their knowledge escapes the influences of the past and thereby alters and even destroys their relation to historical tradition.

Of course, it may be that by the capacity of historical understanding and the methodologically oriented social and historical sciences to destroy the true meaning of tradition, Gadamer means only that they cannot recognize in it claims to validity they must take up precisely as claims to validity. If the true meaning of tradition is that it poses questions to us and challenges us, then destroying this meaning is simply the attempt to reduce its claims by objectifying or empathizing with them. Nonetheless, if the parallel between I-Thou relation and relations to the tradition is to hold, reflecting out of "a living relationship to tradition" must do more. Reflecting out of an I-Thou relation "changes this relationship and destroys its moral bond." This change is not limited to the I's self-understanding; the I does not merely misrepresent the nature of the bond to itself. Rather, on the first level of I-Thou relations, the I "contradicts the moral definition of man," and on the second, "the Thou loses the immediacy with which it makes its claim." (49) Presumably, reflecting out of a similar relation to tradition has the same effect: hermeneutic understanding and the tradition it understands no longer belong together in the way they once did. Yet, in that case, it remains unclear how Gadamer can have it both ways. How can objectivistic historical and social sciences both misunderstand their relationship to tradition in presupposing their disaffiliation with it and alter that relationship so that it conforms to that very disaffiliation?


In his introduction to Truth and Method Gadamer insists that the point of the text is the first of these alternatives. The efforts of historical understanding and the methodologically oriented social and historical sciences to reflect themselves out of a relation to tradition do not weaken their participation in it. He does concede that
   [h]owever important and fundamental were the transformations that
   took place with the Latinization of Greek concepts and the
   translation of Latin language into the modern languages, the
   emergence of historical consciousness over the last few centuries
   is a much more radical rupture.

Nevertheless, what he means by this radical rupture is only the "attitude" that he thinks the objectivistic social and historical sciences have adopted, one he calls "strangely detached." (50)

Yet elsewhere in Truth and Method, Gadamer appears to moderate this claim. To be sure, in elucidating the hermeneutic significance of temporal distance, he describes belonging to a tradition as the "element of tradition in our historical-hermeneutical activity," and he maintains that, as such, belonging reflects "the commonality of fundamental, enabling prejudices" that we share with tradition. He continues, "A person seeking to understand something has a bond to the subject matter that comes into language through the traditionary text and has, or acquires, a connection with the tradition from which the text speaks." In the same passage, however, Gadamer suggests that what he calls hermeneutical consciousness is self-reflective. It "is aware that its bond to the tradition does not consist in some self-evident, unquestioned unanimity as is the case with the unbroken stream of tradition." (51) Thus, while the commonality of the fundamental prejudices we share with the tradition constitutes our ingenuous affinity with it, this affinity does not constitute an unquestioned unanimity. Rather, in speaking of "traditionary" texts or texts that the tradition hands down to us, Gadamer calls them both "historically intended, distantiated" texts and texts that belong to us. "Hermeneutic work," he concludes, "is based on a polarity of familiarity and strangeness." Moreover, "[t]he true locus of hermeneutics is this in-between." (52)

Interestingly, Gadamer makes a similar point about relations to the Other in remarks he makes on friendship. (53) Here he repeats many of his claims about I-Thou relations. First, friendship is reciprocal. It precludes the sort of reflecting out of the relationship indicative of the first and second levels of relations to the Other. Friends do not treat one another either as exemplifications of general human traits or as persons who are to be absorbed into themselves. Second, friendship involves openness; Gadamer writes, "In their being good to one another the partners cannot remain concealed from one another." (54) Third, friendship goes beyond mutual sympathy and good will, which Gadamer calls "mere friendliness" to comprise a "true bond" in which friends are "openly bound to each other. (55) As he also writes, friendship points "to that ultimate dimension of things that we share." (56) Despite this bond, however, Gadamer denies that friends are friends because they are similar. To be sure, in friendship, Gadamer writes, "one recognizes oneself in the other and ... the other also recognizes him or herself in us." Nevertheless, he continues, "Not only in the sense of 'thus is he' but also in the sense that we grant to the other his or her being other." (57)

For Gadamer, then, friendship embodies the same tension between commonality and difference that he finds in our relation to historical tradition. We have a bond with our friends and share a life together with them. Nevertheless, we also value the difference our friends have from us. Gadamer thinks friendship has the value it has precisely because of this tension between participation and difference. Indeed, following Aristotle, he suggests that part of the reason we need friends is that we are not gods and cannot be entirely self-sufficient. Rather, we maintain illusions about ourselves. Intercourse with others and especially with our friends helps to mitigate the vagaries of our own self-understandings. In this way, friendship offers the same opportunities for overcoming our limits that Gadamer also attributes to the dialogic experience of the Other or tradition. Because friends are bound together but remain different and independent, they can assess each other's actions, provide counsel to one another, and augment each other's self-understanding. As Gadamer puts this point, "Because this other, this counterpart, is not one's own mirror image but rather the friend, all powers come into play of increasing trust and devotion to the 'better self that the other is for oneself, and that is something more than good resolution and inward stirrings of conscience." (58)

If, for Gadamer, the value of friendship lies in both the bonds friends share with one another and in the difference they nevertheless possess from one another, the result is that they can provide one another with what Gadamer calls "reciprocal coperception." Because of the bond I share with my friends or, as Gadamer sometimes suggests, as a condition of that bond, I can disclose myself to them. Likewise, because they differ from me, they can provide me with a new perspective on my claims and myself. Our friends provide a mirror for us in which we can see ourselves, not as we see ourselves but more clearly, as what we could be if we were the better self that our friend sees in us. Since we do the same for them, we are each provoked in a way even our own consciences cannot provoke us. In this way, according to Gadamer, "[t]he other, the friend, signifies an accession of being, self-feeling and the richness of life." (59)

Transferred back the issue of our relation to historical tradition, this conclusion suggests that we see the tension between belonging and difference in the same way. On the one hand we possess an "ingenuous affinity" with tradition because we belong to it and we share a common life with it. We are or become the result of its effective-history. On the other hand, tradition is sufficiently removed from us that it can give us a different perspective on ourselves; we can look to it as to our "better self' and learn from it as we learn from our friends. To be sure, we cannot really apply the idea of reciprocal coperception to tradition insofar as it cannot learn from us. Nevertheless, because tradition is the friend, both connected to and separate from us, it offers us an invaluable perspective on ourselves.

This conclusion is not entirely satisfying. Gadamer's original account of experience goes significantly beyond the scope of the coperception our friends and we provide to one another. Experience is radical, involving a reversal of consciousness that can transform our understanding of a particular subject matter, our conception of ourselves, and our orientation toward our world in general. In contrast, in considering friendship Gadamer maintains that our friends "share our views and intentions" and can also "correct and strengthen them." He continues, "As natural beings we are divided from ourselves by sleep just as we are divided from ourselves as intellective beings by forgetting. Yet our friend can keep watch in our place and think for us." (60) Nevertheless, correcting, strengthening, and keeping watch in our place are scarcely the same as challenging us, undermining our assumptions and expectations, and provoking for a global rethinking of our views. The idea of coperception tames experience. Friends can help us in the life we share, but the counsel they offer us is of a piece with our relation to them and no longer involves the kind of profound shattering of assumptions that Gadamer attributes to experience.

Insofar as intersubjective relations provide Gadamer with a model for our relation to historical tradition, the same problem continues to hold for it. Coperception is a pale imitation of experience. If we are to insist on our ongoing affinity with and participation in tradition, then we must concede that it can help us to strengthen and correct our views and intentions but that it cannot constitute the sort of object that is able to reverse our consciousness in an experience. Risser admits as much in connecting experience to recollection. In his view,
   We are always already given over to the world in some way. For
   Gadamer, what we are given over to is not a set of ideas but
   tradition, where tradition designates the giving over itself as
   trans-dure. In tradition there is the element of belongingness as
   such.... Belongingness, which demands listening as the ability to
   be fundamentally open, means that every event of understanding
   "dissolves" into a new familiarity.... By virtue of this element of
   "being given over," of finding oneself in an already constituted
   framework of interpretation, hermeneutic experience can be nothing
   less than a re-cognizing as a gathering-together again. The knowing
   appropriate to hermeneutic experience can thus be said to be a form
   of recollection. (61)

Belonging to tradition is not at odds with experiencing it because the reversal of consciousness that experience elicits does not reflect new understanding as much as a rediscovery of what has been forgotten. Indeed we can see hermeneutics as a whole as a "recovery from forgetfulness." (62) This conclusion allows Gadamer to retain the strength of his initial insistence on "how little the traditions in which we stand are weakened by modern historical consciousness." Yet, in taming experience, the conclusion also attenuates the scope of what we can learn. Looking to our tradition can remind us of the commitments we share with it; it can help us correct practices that fail to accord with these commitments; it can lend a perspective on our current practices and aspirations. We can no longer have the kind of negative experience of tradition that Gadamer also stresses, however, and no longer, for better or for worse, risk any real rupture with it.

University of California--Riverside

(1) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall, 2d rev. ed. (New York: Crossroads Publishing Co., 1992), 358.

(2) Ibid., xxv.

(3) Gadamer, Truth and Method, xxiii.

(4) See Jurgen Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Jerry A. Stark (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), 167-70.

(5) See Jean Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2003), 18.

(6) As James Risser points out, one of the reasons Gadamer uses the term Erfahrung instead of Erlebnis for "experience" is to connect Erfahrung to fahren or "venturing out." See James Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Rereading Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 85. See also Donatella Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, trans. Niall Keane (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 105.

(7) Indeed, Gadamer turns to Aeschylus to suggest that experience is something we "suffer." Yet, as in Aeschylus, this suffering leads to learning. See Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 90-91; Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer, 117; and Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, 105.

(8) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354.

(11) Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 89. Also see James Risser, The Life of Understanding: A Contemporary Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 37.

(12) Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person," trans. Peter Adamson and David Vessey, Continental Philosophy Revieiv 33, no. 3 (July 2000): 285.

(13) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 355.

(14) Ibid., 357.

(15) See Risser on the difference between the "English" sense of accumulating experiences where experiences simply mount up and the Hegelian sense where they involve transformation. Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 89.

(16) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 357.

(17) Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, 102. Also see Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer, 75: "Hermeneutics is not the title of a philosophical project that aspires to complete understanding, but the name of vigilance in thought which rests on its absence."

(18) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 353.

(19) With Martin Buber in mind, as Risser points out. See Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 92.

(20) Gadamer, "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person," 282.

(21) Monica Vilhauer helpfully describes Gadamer's three levels of intersubjective relations as a scientific relation, a psychological approach, and an open approach to the Other. See Monica Vilhauer, Gadayner's Ethics of Play: Hermeneutics and the Other (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), 76-85.

(22) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 359.

(23) Ibid., 361.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Gadamer, "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity," 284. As Di Cesare puts the point, "Openness to the otherness of the you is a necessity for hermeneutic consciousness, since for this consciousness the other is the beyond of its own limit, the way out of its own finitude." Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, 107.

(26) Gadamer uses "ethics" and "morality" interchangeably.

(27) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 359.

(28) See Axel Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third: Gadamer and Heidegger's Doctrine of Intersubjectivity," Philosophy and Social Criticism 29, no. 1 (2003): 10: "Here a type of implication relation (Implikationverhaltnis) exists between moral wrongdoing and cognitive error. If the interaction partner is treated as a mere means, the subject cognitively reduces him or her to only those characteristics that form the starting-point for the pursuit of the subject's own goals."

(29) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 359-60.

(30) Ibid., 358.

(31) See Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 11: "In Gadamer's eyes, the morally problematic tendency of an 'authoritarian solicitude' results when a subject cognitively abstracts from the connection that it earlier already maintained with her or his interaction partner.... Gadamer would like to show that in both cases it is an error related to cognition that must lead to the morally questionable assertion of a superior understanding (of the other)."

(32) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 359.

(33) Ibid., 360.

(34) Ibid., 361

(35) Ibid.

(36) See Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 19. In a 1930s review of Karl Lowith's The Individual in the Role of Mitmenschen Gadamer suggests that Lowith's solution to the risk of deformed intersubjective relations, a solution appealing to the norm of respect, abstracts from the particularity of the Other and continues to risk deformation by attributing to the Other only the universal rights of any human subject without regard to his concrete particularity. Honneth suggests that Lowith can see what Gadamer cannot: "The attitude of respect guarantees that the other still remains recognized as an autonomous person even when he or she begins to reveal his or her own individuality in intersubjective processes." Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 17. Also see Lauren Barthold's summing up of this sort of criticism that Honneth and others raise against Gadamer: "A succinct way to summarize such charges is to say that Gadamer's conception of openness allows no critical component since there is no room for reflective distance in either the I-thou relation or in our relation to history and tradition." Lauren Barthold, Gadamer's Dialectical Hermeneutics (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), 102.

(37) This question is related to but different from the one Claus von Bormann asks in "Die Zweideutigkeit der Hermeneutische Erfahrung," in Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik, ed. Karl-Otto Apel et al. (Frankfurt: Surhrkamp Verlag, 1971). Von Bormann asks whether Gadamer's account of being situated in history must not limit the experiences to which we can be open. My question is whether Gadamer's account of belonging does not itself limit the experiences to which we can be open.

(38) This interpretation is the one Honneth adopts, and, although he dissents from Gadamer's position on ethical I-Thou relations in general, he sees no conflict between Gadamer's insistence on the openness that presupposes genuine bonds and the openness that allows us to experience the Other. Rather, because the subject acknowledges its bond with the Other it can "confidently abandon itself to accomplishing (Vollzug) reciprocal understanding, and open itself up to the 'Thou' as a constant source of refuting its own presuppositions." See Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 11-12.

(39) Both Risser and Honneth remark on the oddity of this intermediary step. Why does Gadamer not proceed directly from a general account of experience to the experience of tradition? Risser thinks interposing the experience of the Thou emphasizes the degree to which "hermeneutic experience is the encounter with the voice of the other." See Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 92 and 94. Honneth thinks the detour into I-Thou relations is meant to emphasize the ethical and epistemological necessity of direct, unmediated experience, an emphasis about which Honneth has worries. See Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 20.

(40) See Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer, 112.

(41) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 358.

(42) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 303.

(43) As Honneth puts the point, "The historian tries to cope with the otherness of the past in that he or she strives for objective knowledge through the denial of any effective-historical influences." Honneth, "On the Destructive Power of the Third," 11.

(44) See Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, 155-58.

(45) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 360.

(46) Ibid., 361-62.

(47) Ibid., 282.

(48) Gadamer, Truth and Method, 282.

(49) Ibid., 359.

(50) Ibid., xxiv-xxv.

(51) All quotes from Gadamer, Truth and Method, 295.

(52) ibid.

(53) See esp. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Friendship and Self-Knowledge: Reflections on the Role of Friendship in Greek Ethics," in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hermeneutics, Ethics and Religion, trans. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 128-41. Also see Darren R. Walhof, "Friendship, Otherness, and Gadamer's Politics of Solidarity," Political Theory 34, no. 5 (October 2006); and David Vessey, "Gadamer's Account of Friendship as an Alternative to an Account of Intersubjectivity," Philosophy Today 49, issue supplement (2005): 61-67.

(54) Gadamer, "Friendship and Self-Knowledge," 134.

(55) Ibid.

(56) Gadamer, "The Ethics of Value and Practical Philosophy," in Hermeneutics, Ethics and Religion, 117.

(57) Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Freundschaft und Solidaritat," in Hermeneutische Entwiirfe: Vortrdge und Aufsatze (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 62.

(58) Gadamer, "Friendship and Self-Knowledge," 139.

(59) Ibid., 137.

(60) Ibid, 140.

(61) Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Rereading Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics, 95-96.

(62) Ibid., 99.

Correspondence to: Georgia Warnke, Center for Ideas and Society, University of California--Riverside, 900 University Ave., College Building South, Riverside, CA 92373.
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