Today, 11th February 2020, marks what would have been the 120th birthday of Hans-Georg Gadamer*—a prolific German philosopher and titan of the hermeneutical tradition right up until his death at the modest age of 102, in 2002. Hermeneutics is the study of modes and forms of interpretation which first came to prominence in the early study of religious texts, and developed through the work of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer into a broader philosophical movement focussed on the nature of the process of understanding, its relationship with truth, and how our experiences, prejudices, and preconceptions situate our approach to making sense of things.
While I can find no record of Gadamer visiting the LSE, the relationship between philosophical hermeneutics and logical positivism connects Gadamer, at least, to Popper. Logical positivism is the doctrine that certainty about knowledge can be found by reducing truth to some objective criteria—and both Popper and Gadamer famously criticised this theory, but from two distinct traditions. Popper was part of a tradition known as analytic philosophy, which is a style of philosophy distinguished by preciseness and a focus on objective truth, while Gadamer was a continental philosopher, which is an approach to philosophy which is more deeply rooted in history and experience. Popper, the founder of philosophy at the LSE, argued that no amount of proof or verification can be sufficient for objective truth, but rather the focus should be on falsification, as a reproducible refutation of a theory can prove it to be false. While Gadamer argued that positivists consider only one form of truth, and that actually there is a deeper form of truth that exists in the dynamic process of understanding and self-understanding. Much ado is made about the incompatibility of continental and analytic approaches to philosophy: on an open day at UCL I was told that they didn’t allow philosophy undergraduates to take part in their year abroad scheme because alternative approaches to the subject were “too different” to how they teach it. But by making the object of our focus the process by which we come to understanding, self-understanding, and interpretation, the methodological differences between the analytic and continental schools can be seen to complement each other, and the contrasting perspectives can provide new insight into how we understand our capacity for understanding, in the sciences, the social sciences, art, and everyday experience.
The questions which occupied Gadamer’s work, questions about the how our pre-judgements about things shape our interpretations of them, about how the background of our conscious activity shapes our understanding, are questions which have developed a newfound pertinence in the age of post-truth and alternative facts. The popular conception of truth is being questioned and revised now in a particularly interesting way, and, in the spirit of Gadamer, to push against monolithic interpretations of certainty and attempt to capture the dynamic nature of how we come to understandings should come back into focus as we enter this new decade. Happy Birthday Gadamer!
*Today also marks 370 years since the death of Descartes, the 46th birthday of far-right commentator Alex Jones, and the 67th birthday of Jeb Bush, but we don’t celebrate those sort of things here at the LSE.