The Hermeneutic Productivity of the Familiar

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer draws upon Aristotle’s analogy between an army halting its retreat and the experience of coming to understanding. The halt may be so gradual that an observer can say when individuals within the army stop fleeing, but it’s more difficulty to say when the army as a whole has stopped its flight (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

This situation Gadamer likens to the acquisition of language by children and comments,

In the utilization of the linguistic interpretation of the world that finally comes about [for adults], something of the productivity of our beginnings remains alive. We are all acquainted with this, for instance, in the attempt to translate … that is, we are familiar with the strange, uncomfortable, and tortuous feeling we have so long as we do not have the right word. When we have found the right expression … when we are certain that we have it … then something has come to a “stand” [as the army in Aristotle’s analogy]. Once again we have a halt in the midst of the rush of the foreign language…. What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world…. There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. Misunderstanding and strangeness are not the first factors, so that avoiding misunderstanding can be regarded as the specific task of hermeneutics. Just the reverse is the case. Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enriching of our own experience in the world. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 15)

From the morass of the unfamiliar and strange, humans seem to acquire language or other forms of understanding—to the extent that we do—by means of what are or come to be known quantities, whether as a parent or caregiver, or based on other accumulated prior experience. Our efforts to cope with a “surging sea of stimuli” halt their flight, they come to a stand, once that sea finds its own place—and itself comes to stand—within our understanding of the world, which has quite possibly been broadened for the experience (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

The Power of Private Presuppositions

Presuppositions that remain unacknowledged at least to oneself can still exercise strong influence. Indeed,

[a] person who believes he is free of prejudices, relying on the objectivity of his procedures and denying that he is himself conditioned by historical circumstances, experiences the power of the prejudices that unconsciously dominate him as a vis a tergo. A person who does not admit that he is dominated by prejudices will fail to see what manifests itself by their light [because it will not be foregrounded from them] (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2006, 354 and Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2013, 369).

We sometimes see this dynamic at work when we cannot see any other possible resolution for a given problem or interpretation for a given data set than the one that we prefer. “This must be that,” we think, for, “How could it be otherwise?” A close cousin to this kind of logic is an argument that, of the possible interpretations, only one is any good, and the other is bad. Or, only one is good, and all the others are equally or effectively just as bad as each other.

Of course, some interpretations do explain the relevant data more comprehensively and more coherently than competing interpretations, but evaluating these other interpretations, as it were, from inside the horizons from which they come is a valuable skill to cultivate. For, this skill can help minimize the tendency to adopt less coherent or comprehensive interpretations simply because of things that we do not realize that we think—and that we have not, therefore, evaluated to determine their own legitimacy. Moreover, in a rhetorical context, considering the same information from another standpoint can help refine and strengthen one’s own positions as well as suggest more effective ways of communicating these positions to others.