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The Hermeneutics of Life History: Personal Achievement and History in Gadamer, Habermas, and Erikson.

The Hermeneutics of Life History: Personal Achievement and History in Gadamer, Habermas, and Erikson. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990. xv + 158 pp. $29.95--In this thoughtful essay Wallulis argues that a rethinking of Gadamer's seminal claims about our historical situatedness is necessary if we are to have an adequate account of personal achievement. He argues that in stressing that we are the effect of tradition, Gadamer does not allow personal initiative its due. Wallulis wants to oppose a consciousness of "having been enabled" to what he sees as Gadamer's exclusive emphasis on a consciousness of being affected by history, as well as to Habermas's notion of a consciousness oriented towards emancipation, that is, towards overcoming pseudo-natural constraints and attaining complete self-transparency. While sympathetic to Gadamer's hermeneutic critique of Habermas, Wallulis wants to offer a corrective to Gadamer's one-sided focus and thereby to elaborate a "hermeneutic of life history" that does justice to personal achievement.

Wallulis makes his case by paying close attention to texts. In the first chapter he discusses Gadamer's description of the happening or event structure of our appropriation of tradition. He takes Gadamer's well known analysis of play to be paradigmatic for Gadamer's understanding of our relationship to history and tradition--namely, that we are caught up in the happening of history and tradition as we are caught up in the action of the game. The event of appropriation thus overshadows action or achievement.

The second chapter, which pursues themes sounded in the Habermas-Gadamer debate, argues that though Habermas provides a successful account of processes of self-formation as achievements, he overstates what those achievements can accomplish; for the claim to self-transparency must run up against hermeneutic limits.

The third chapter argues that Gadamer's rhetorical emphasis suggests an opposition between historical belongingness and personal achievement, privileging the former over the latter, stressing limitation over enablement (pp. 59-60). To produce a more balanced account, incorporating both historical belongingness and achievement, Wallulis returns in the fourth chapter to the work of Habermas, this time to his more recent work on the theory of communicative action, and compares Habermas and Erikson on ego identity. In a highly competent discussion of Habermas's recent work, Wallulis concludes that its account of the role of tradition so abstracts from the content of tradition that it is still not sufficiently attentive to our hermeneutic situatedness. The author finds a more persuasive balance struck by Erikson in his analysis of the life cycle.

In the fifth chapter, Erikson's analysis of play, with its focus on an "action structure" highlighting mastery and achievement, is contrasted with Gadamer's analysis, with its emphasis on an "event structure." Wallulis argues for our viewing these structures as complementary rather than opposed (p. 96). In the last chapter and in the conclusion Wallulis focuses upon the appropriation of individual life history. He develops the notion of a "consciousness of having been enabled" as one of the complementary forms that our awareness of our past should assume if we are to have a consciousness of personal achievement and are successfully to achieve an historical perspective on our lives (p. 125). He has interesting things to say here, derived from his Erikson interpretation and against Habermas, about how we can understand the notions of the continuity of a life and of the integration of life history, about our seeing our past not only negatively as an immature stage of development but also positively as a stage of enablement.

One might object that Wallulis's reading of Gadamer should more fully reflect an attempt to determine whether Gadamer's position can accommodate the author's legitimate concerns. In particular, two important aspects of Gadamer's hermeneutics are given short shrift in this book: his analyses of judgment or phronesis, and of linguisticality. For Gadamer, tradition lives in being handed down to and taken over by succeeding generations through acts of interpretation. Each succeeding generation "understands differently" what its predecessors understood. Tradition per se plays only a partial and schematic role here; our concerns and our hermeneutic situations are also operative and are productive of something novel. Tradition leaves action underdetermined and thus necessarily leaves a space for individual responsibility and judgment.

Moreover, for Gadamer, "Tradition is linguistic in nature" (Truth and Method [New York: Seabury Press, 1975], 351). The conditions for the intelligibility of action are handed down by tradition through being encoded in language. So "action structures" themselves must be understood within the context of what is handed down. One can distinguish between understanding history or the past as cause-like factors on the one hand, and understanding history as the bearer of the conditions for the intelligibility of action on the other. Wallulis tends to operate with the first sense and hence tends, in my view, to reify history and tradition. By interpreting historical belongingness in the first sense and by claiming that Gadamer places an unbalanced emphasis upon it. Wallulis is led to think that the topic of personal achievement cannot be profitably pursued within the ambit of Gadamer's doctrine (p. 134). Hence Wallulis's search for a more balanced account. It is not clear, however, that such a search would be as pressing if the second, more linguistic way of understanding tradition were given its due, for on that understanding history and tradition do not stand in the sort of tension with personal achievement that they might otherwise be thought to.

These objections aside, this study does repay careful reading, for it encourages one to think in a critical fashion about the scope and limits of Gadamer's notion of historical belongingness and about what is requisite for an adequate hermeneutic of life history.
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Author:Simpson, Lorenzo C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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