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Philosophical Hermeneutics: Between Gadamer and Ricoeur. Part 2

45 (2019) Еditor: Gergana Popova
Topic of the issue
Chavdar Valentinov Dimitrov, PhD student in Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski,


Philosophical Hermeneutics: Between Gadamer and Ricoeur



4. Towards a discourse of the human sciences


Commenting on the approach of Gadamer, Gary Aylesworth (1991: 79) points out that the meaning of the word, because of its temporality, is realized only historically. This implies a continuity of discourse аnd rootedness in a common context of experience, through which an integration of the humanities can be achieved via moral-political "solidarity", rather than on epistemological basis (Gadamer 1980b: 74-75). If rhetoric and scientific knowledge are monological, they need the counterbalance of dialogical hermeneutics (Gadamer 1975: 316). On this level, appropriation of texts is more like a "becoming other," that is, a response to the question of the subject-matter of the historical tradition (Aylesworth 1991: 81). Ricoeur's appreciation of methods and techniques leads to constructing a "ground" from various discourses, without presupposing a common mediator. Hermeneutics depends upon their legitimate differences. It reflects upon them and attempts (on a cultural-historical level) to recover the self from its 'dispersion' among languages, signs, symbols and texts. As Aylesworth summarizes (1991: 80), the unity of an individual ego is the "ideal telos" of hermeneutical practice. In this context Ricoeur's interest (1978: 3) has been in establishing connections between inquiry (research; Historie) and its dependency of on the human condition.

Ricoeur describes the historical discipline as a relation between 'belonging-to-history' and a capacity to place this experience at a distance (reflectively). The former is rather to be conceived as co-existence, connectedness, acknowledging each other as similar (simultaneously or in temporal parallel). Thus, subjectivity cannot be made into the foundation of historical experience and knowledge (Langford 2012: 14). This kind of history reflects "a multitude of temporal fields themselves related as contemporaneous, anterior and posterior within an all encompassing temporal field..."[1] and is an existential condition. The past becomes the already existing process of the transmission of traditions within which individuals are related to their predecessors and successors (Langford 2012: 17-8). Ricoeur (1978: 11) completes his analysis with the so-called "interest for communication" or openness and capacity to be affected by 'belonging-to-history'. The historian is actively involved in producing a knowledge of the past, but if his understanding must become identical with that of others (as experiencing the individual's life which lies behind the particular text), it will elude the specifics of the survival of the past in the present (Ricoeur 1984: 17). For Dilthey, cultural science consists in the theoretical resources that build up upon the general preconditions for understanding itself. He defines the interest in communication (with the past) as 'empathetic understanding.' This activity operates upon the externalisation of experience (personal, interior life of another individual) into written signs, in order to produce an objective understanding of the past in the form of an internal experience.[2] For Ricoeur, this conceptionrestricts the capacity of autonomous text and works for the recovery of meaning which remains unchangeable over the course of history. Ricoeur replaces the notion of 'empathetic understanding' with a reciprocal relation between the historian's recounting and the follower of his narrative (Langford 2012: 19). On Dilthey's view, a transportation into the past (a reader is made contemporary with the author) has a psychological and existential effect (recognition of a life which lies behind the language) - the internal manifestation of the irreducible, vital meaning within the texts of which the domain of the cultural sciences is composed (Langford 2012: 20). Such a conception of the text stems from the view that the expressible is contained in language, in the difference between the act of 'saying' (event in which experience is externalised) and the 'said' which continues to have meaning (Ricoeur 1978b: 151-52). The meaning of the written is located solely in a text regarded as a specific entity in its own right (Ricoeur 1978b: 153). Such an autonomy is a condition for thematisation of history. It situates both the historian and the reader as essential elements in the generation of understanding which takes place through the medium of the text. This is also the break made with a mere living in tradition and the acknowledgement of the distance that separates those in the present from those in the past. Reflective distance extends individuals' experience. By recomposing the past histories provide answers to a lack of identification. According to Ricoeur, reconstruction of tradition is the methodical expression of the primacy of judgement in relation to the world (1978: 16). Objectification is that moment in which the relation of 'belonging-to-history' is explicitly thematised (Ricoeur 1978b: 165). Such reflection (upon tradition) is textually embedded and transferred to the reader. This process is only completed through 'appropriation' engendered from the narrative competence.

Ricoeur's reformulation of the hermeneutic circle proceeds from a connection between the discourse of text and the interpretation. What has to be interpreted is the kind of world which a text opens up or discloses. In the openness of the historical narration to the reading (Ricoeur 1978b: 164) the act of 'appropriation' is an intersection between the world of the reader and the world of the text. The synthetic character of narration (coherent structure, contingency and plausibility; not deductible, unpredictable conclusion) makes the activity of following in which the initial progression is replaced by an interest in the reasons, motives and causes. As Langford sumps up (2012: 23-24), the autonomous textual location is a checking point for the appropriation of the world reconstructed by a historian.



II. Meaning, time and the task of hermeneutics


In examining the views of Gadamer Leonard Lawlor (1991: 90) marks a Hegelian conception of language: 1) the applicability of words to the world is presented in statements (1976: 32; 1989: 467); 2) generalization and concretization of concepts take place in the movement of language (1976b: 13-14); Darstellung (presentation) is the event of differentiation between infinite and finite; 3) that the word or statement disappears before what is presented is not just a passage from thought to the here and now (1989: 423-24). When externalized, the word reflects both memory and thinking - in speech the word is simultaneous with formation of intellect (Lawlor 1991: 87-88). When he estimates the thesis of Ricoeur, which keeps also a place for 'ideal meaning' in Husserlian terms (1978b: 114) [3], Lawlor (1991: 86) marks a Kantian sense of Idea.

We can outline divergences between the positions of Gadamer and Ricoeur:

(A) in regard to the role of text;

(B) on notions of self and its constitution (in the respective adaptations of Aristotle);

(C) on the work of 'historicity' (respectively in dialogue and in narrative).

We might expect that both philosophers agree that the model for hermeneutic understanding must be adequate to the experience of time, but their choices - when specifying the problematic of time and meaning - draw two different tasks for hermeneutics.


1. Gadamer's way


A. With regard to the text, Gadamer develops sources of non-methodological type. But if mutual understanding is possible only through the mediation of the subject-matter, for him hermeneutics must correct the methodological alienation of the human sciences' subject matter (Aylesworth 1991: 63-64). The dialectical nature of language attends to the thing itself (the subject-matter of a dialogue between text and reader) and does not arrive at scientific certainty (1980c: 198). Therefore, meaning itself is temporal; being not fixed, it is produced as a third moment that is not already contained (Aylesworth: 73). As something that speaks, the text is inalienable from concomitant historicity; there is no subjugation of discourse to method (1981: 11-2, 72).

B. For Gadamer, the truth about ourselves (self-understanding) is not a matter of knowledge a posteriori (1981: 11-5; Aylesworth: 66-67). According to his understanding, experience in terms of practical reason does not culminate in a moment of reflection and remains open (1990: 319; Aylesworth: 68). In Aristotle's conception phronesis (practical judgement) must reconstitute itself in concrete - application to new situation (1990: 278-89; Aylesworth: 67). The constitution of the self as moral character (ethos) involves interaction with other/s. This general disposition to act is reconstituted in every concrete application; the production of meaning is derivative upon phronesis, but is not predetermined (Gadamer 1990: 419, 459).

C. Gadamer suggests that one of our most fundamental experiences of time is that of becoming-other (1970: 348). One of the epochal experiences he outlines is the "absolute epoch" (1972: 235). Epochal experiences introduce temporal discontinuity into our self-understanding. Such an understanding of time relates to an event establishing a "caesure" ("brings the flow of time to a standstill"), that is, between what precedes (old) and everything which now comes as new (Gadamer 1970: 349-351). It is not an atemporal objectification, but an opening within temporality itself; occasioned by the poetic word, which dissolves conventional forms of language. According to Aylesworth (75-76), for Gadamer the word of historical tradition can addresses us in the same way. What is implied is the structure of that which endures in every alteration and articulation of its phases (Gadamer 1990: 346, 349). The notion of aion refers to something prior the reflective difference between the soul and the cosmos.

As Lawlor points out (1991:87), for Gadamer conforming one's speech to the pre-established meanings of words does not imply simple repetition. The word also comes to participate in the particular of the situation, in the production and interpretation of works of art and poetry (Gadamer 1989: 428-29). The perspective of "concept formation" opposes pre-existing meaning and the teleology in which the end or concept stands outside the process of time (1989: 459, 465-66; Lawlor 1991: 82-3). Gadamer describes presentation as the perfect understanding of a finite listener/reader into the thing itself; the word brings about a new creative event in which meaning discloses itself. This is a peak of the text: "the full equivalency of sense and sound, which turns the text into an eminent text, finds very different kinds of fulfillment in different literary genres" (Gadamer 1980: 8; Ross 2003: 156).


2. Ricoeur's way


 Conversation repeats codified formulas of words' polysemy, but singularity and wholeness direct the hearer to "screen" the unintended (1977: 130-131, 151-152). Ricoeur points out the nature of hermeneutical experience as presentation (1981: 193), but describes the text as "a kind of atemporal object" which channels both the 'distanciation' (from discourse as event) and 'appropriation' of meaning (1976: 91; 1981: 185).[4] Metaphoric utterance leaps away from the trajectory of codes and creates a novel configuration (1977: 151, 299). Such imaginative production attempts an univocity via deviation, and thus overcomes distanciation. It makes present something more than the shock of "the said" (1981: 132, 134) - a meaning reidentifiable across time. Its content achieves universality by cancelling and preserving the irregularity (1978b: 127; Lawlor: 85-86).


A. Ricoeur insists that philosophical hermeneutics must be critical (1974: 15-6). The relevance of its discourse lies in the "conflict of interpretations", which includes structural linguistics, semiotics and psychoanalysis. The dialectics between explanation and understanding must relate to the human self and its life-world (Ricoeur 1981: 158). The 'distanciation' through inter-textuality is a means for a critique of ideology (1981: 182-193). This epistemic breach with the author and the circumstamces of her/his work applies also to the subject and is an effect of 'the world of text'. While he agrees that text and reader belong together unreflectively, Ricoeur claims that their "struggle" generates "the whole dynamic of interpretation" (1976: 32). He does not see the encounter with a text in terms of dialogue which is mostly determined by ostensive reference to "here" and "now" (1981: 141). Ricoeur agrees that appropriation is historical (Aylesworth: 69-70), but in expanding the notion of poiesis (Aristotle), he appeals to productive imagination which is summoned in the opposition between 'hermeneutics of belonging' and 'hermeneutics of suspicion'. Thus, productive mimesis is essentially dialectical. Narrative schematism (emplotment) works on a cultural-historical level. Given the concept of 'distanciation', the intelligibility of the world of narrative "has more to do with imagination than with reason" (1983b: 155; Aylesworth: 71). The plot emerges as a configuration (upon the 'pre-given world of action') and offers a world of possibilities to be refigured through the 'reader's appropriation.' Even though narratives are a part of unreflected, "anonymous" historical tradition, after an alienation from itself in the text (the objective moment), the subject can go back to the life-world with a new idea (a possible transfiguration) of the world of action (Ricoeur 1984a: 77).

B. How the reading subject recovers itself from the alienation of the text? On Ricoeur's critical intention, "belonging" is characterized as an adherence to "lived experience" (1981: 76-77). In the reflective tradition this term denotes the foundation for objectivity - pertains to a pre-linguistic noetic plane, or to the substance of objective spirit (Hegel), in relation to which Ricoeur takes linguistic meaning to be derivative (Aylesworth: 69). He suggests that narrative intelligibility "neighbours" on phronesis (Aristotle). Its teleology leads to the individuation of the subject through production or appropriation, insofar as the plot provides for understanding the end in the beginning and vice versa. Along this line of thoughts, identity is constituted in practical terms: the reader must become an agent (Ricoeur 1988: 246). The subject becomes responsible (moral person) through the encounter with ideal meaning (of the text), or the imaginative variation (upon her/his ego). This is a question "of entering into an alien work, of divesting oneself of earlier 'me' in order to receive, as in play, the self conferred by the work itself" (Ricoeur 1981: 152).

            C. Appropriation must return to the event of speech, but reading cannot exhaust the possibilities of the ideal meaning of the text (Aylesworth: 74). Nonetheless, the latter projects knowable ways of being. For Ricoeur, ideality, as a distance from temporality, is necessary for a critical mediation (Ricoeur 1981: 147, 154). In Time and Narrative (1988: 21) he claims to improve on this problematic of time by setting a bridge - the mediating role of three features of time - between lived time and the time of the external world. Accordingly, through a fictional projection or mythological construction, the reader can take a glimpse at another temporal dimension (Aylesworth: 77-78). This 'fictive experience' may affect also our historical consciousness.



III. Conclusion: hermeneutics as critique


In a text for a volume dedicated to hermeneutical philosophy Jurgen Habermas [5] argues that if the language of oppression is both institutional and unobjectifiable within the hermeneutical situation, then Gadamer's lacks a possibility for critique. For Gadamer, Habermas reverts to "objectification inherent in the idealist conception of reflection" [brackets experience to posit the ideal situation wherein the authority of tradition can be viewed from an 'outside'] (1986b: 288, 291). Gadamer also refers to narrative knowledge by making the distinction between the 'thematic' and 'effective' reflection: " must distinguish "effective reflection" (die "effektive" Reflexion), which is that in which the unfolding of language takes place, from expressive and thematic reflection, which is the type out of which Occidental linguistic history has been formed.(1986b: 292; Ross 2003: 17-19). Ricoeur sees the debate as an opposition between a hermeneutics of tradition - finitude can only be acknowledged and consciousness carries the mark of humility - and an emancipatory consciousness - suspicion acts against false consciousness (1986b: 300, 325). Ricoeur aims at a dialectical encompassing of both a "recollection of tradition" (belonging) and an "anticipation of freedom" (distanciation) (328, 337-8). An option for critique brackets the experiential aspect of the text's subject-matter. For Gadamer, the sought for critical moment occurs within the same element we inhabit - language (289). Тhe logical orientation to the experience of understanding is difficult; our interpretive condition is insurmountable (Ross 2003: 19-20). The mode of being in history implies the participatory, dialogical experience in which the truth, viz., the coming forth of the past, happens with phenomenological clarity (Gadamer 1972: 232; Ross: 79-80). From the point of "the operativeness of history in our conditionedness and finitude", the attachment to critique is for Gadamer "a dogmatic objectivism that distorts the very concept of hermeneutical reflection itself. In this objectivism the understander is seen [...] in such a way as to imply that his own understanding does not enter into the event." (1986b: 284-6; Ross: 25-26). Ricoeur proposes the category of "the awareness of history" - "the reflective consciousness of [historical] methodology" (1986b: 310). The relation of structure to hermeneutics is the subject of a later exchange between the two philosophers (Bruzina & Wiltshire1982: 299-320). Gadamer's reply to dialectic - between deconstructive and teleological hermeneutics - is to elaborate on their irreconcilability on the level of truth-experience in religion and arts; in these fields there isn't unbridgeable gap between oneself, another and truth. In asking about how to reconcile radical [Nietzschean/Marxian/Freudian] interpretation with participation in the process of culture, Gadamer recalls Heidegger's view that interpretation follows facticity (301-2). Applying dialectic to the contrast between hermeneutics and structuralism is hard to combine with the temporality of eventful understanding (Bruzina & Wiltshire 1982: 316 Ross 2003: 143).

On Ricoeur's alternative one has to be a 'pupil of the text' (1986c: 60, 129; Figal 2012: 537). Тhis side of his conception of self-understanding involves an overlap of 'imagination' and 'еché' (Husserl). According to The Hermeneutic Function of Distanciation, fictional discourse releases what discloses the horizon of our life and our project (1981: 72, 101), with the statement texts suspend subjectivity, or let it become unreal (1986c: 130-31), Ricoeur suggests a pure potentiality of subjectivity. In reading it is "a question of... divesting oneself of the earlier 'me' in order to receive, as in play, the self confined by the work itself" (Ricoeur 1981: 152-53; MacAvoy 2016: 17). While it is unclear what kind of world it is that is opened up by a text - whether it is 'the world of the reader' or the world of the work (Figal: 536), - the referential capacity is placed under that of poetic work in general; "[p]oetic narrative resignifies the world in its temporal dimension to the extent that narrating, telling, reciting is a way of remaking action following the poem's invention" (Ricoeur 1984a: 80-82). Imagination is presupposed as the pre-narrative human capacity acting in a symbolically significant manner (Kearney 1998: 153-54). According to George Taylor, this suggests that any transformative fiction - utopia, scientific model, or a poem - must have elements of reproductive imagination, must draw from existing reality sufficiently so that its distance is not too great, yet, productive imagination must introduce something without an original, from nowhere; only in this way is it transformative of existing reality (Taylor 2006: 97-8). The theory of metaphor is a further clarification (1977: 173-216) here, but grasping Ricoeur's idea amounts to a controversial dichotomy - between the two types of imagination. [6] His account - "images are spoken [heard] before they are seen" (1991: 121) - suggests that language is the sphere of productive imagination (1979: 129, 134). What the latter brings to fulfilment is founded in language. Ricoeur's distinction - free images (characteristic of reproductive) can be seen before they are spoken, bound images (must be spoken before they are seen) (1977: 211; 1979: 133) - belongs with a theory for which it is necessary that perception and language constitute two irreconcilable origins of images.

After the exposition of the afore-mentioned specifics, we must say that there are deep differences between the guiding intuitions of Gadamer and Ricoeur. The German philosopher is steadfast on the phenomenological significance of pre-predicative experience, transferred into his own elaboration on non-arbitrary prejudices. His French colleague strives to expound a 'situation' where the regular, social mode of perception is subdued so that linguistic productive imagination can take over and project a new vision. In juxtaposition these two approaches, and the respective ideas about the task of hermeneutics, are difficult to reconcile.


[1] By means of Husserl's Paarung (pairing), my temporality is primordially related to that of others, whom I apprehend as subjects analogous to myself. That 'one temporal flux accompanies another temporal flux' corresponds to the way in which I can accompanies an I can, analogous in its capacity to ascribe experiences to itself' (Ricoeur 1978: 7-8).

[2] A process of externalisation represents the transition to a milieu which seeks to understand itself and offers itself for the understanding by others. This inner connection (between signs and the expressed life-experience) is basic for the cultural sciences. It is the condition for the text's stable, unchanging meaning and presupposes that texts never break their link with the author's intention nor with the original audience they addressed. This transcendence of the past has as its first model the alien psychic life carried outside by 'signitive conduct'. Expression crosses the gap separating the outside and the inside. The transfer in imagination into alien psychic life spans the gap separating the self and the other. Thus, from two converging externalisations results the first objectification by which a private life and an alien life open up one to the other. Onto this is grafted the second-order objectification resulting from the inscription (writing) of the expression(Ricoeur 1984: 16-17; 1978: 14-15).

[3] Husserl articulates the sense of a physical thing (1982: 90-2, 197-9, 342-3) as still presented finitely (our intuition); essentially given only in perspectives ("closed appearances"), its kernel (Idea) of sameness comes to presence in its own type of evidence (Lawlor 1991: 86).

[4] "It is the task of  hermeneutics... to reconstruct the set of operations by which a work lifts itself above the opaque depths of living, acting and suffering." Ricoeur, P. 1984a. Time and Narrative vol. I, trans. K. Blamey & D. Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 53.

[5] See Wachterhauser (1986b). Jurgen, H. A Review of Gadamer's Truth and Method, trans. F. Dallmayr and T. McCarthy, 243-276.

[6] For a detailed discussion see Saulius, G. 2015. and Taylor, G. 2006.



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