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Hans-Georg Gadamer - Biography


Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002)

Hans Georg Gadamer was born in Marburg an der Lahn on February 11, 1900. In 1918 he studied with Richard Hoenigswald at Breslau, and in 1919 he studied with Nicolai Hartmann and the neo-Kantian philosopher Paul Natorp at Marburg. In 1922 he graduated with a thesis on The Essence of Pleasure and Dialogue in Plato. In 1923 he met Husserl and Heidegger at Frieberg. He wrote a second doctoral dissertation under Heidegger, and became a Privatdozent at the University of Marburg. Gadamer once stated that he owed everything to Heidegger, his greatest influence. Heidegger's hermeneutical approach and his idea that philosophy is inseparable from historic and artistic culture would form the basis of Gadamer's philosophy.

In 1937 Gadamer was elected to be a professor of philosophy in Marburg, and in 1939 he moved to a professorship at the University of Leipzig. He took a politically neutral position in the eyes of the occupying Soviet Army, and under the new communist state of East Germany in 1945 became the Rector of Leipzig. In 1947 he moved West to accept a position at the University of Frankfurt-am-Main. In 1949 he succeeded Karl Jaspers as Professor of Philosophy in Heidelberg, and became Professor Emeritus in 1968, continuing to teach there for over 50 years. He has been a visiting professor in universities around the world, enjoying a special relationship with Boston College in the United States. He was known as a sociable and vivacious personality, and remained active until the last year of his life.

In 1960 he published Truth and Method, which would describe most thoroughly his work on philosophical hermeneutics. The book is an extension of Heidegger's ontology into critical hermeneutics, and attacks the view of scientific method as the only route to truth. Critical hermeneutics can be understood at the philosophy of understanding and interpretation. Truth and Method examines language as a vehicle for interpretation, and includes critiques of both Kantian aesthetics, Romantic hermeneutics, and the historicism of Dilthey. Gadamer argues that the truths of history, society and culture are only revealed through a kind of dialogue: through listening to history as it is revealed in traditions and institutions and culture as it is revealed in poetry. These truths remain inaccessible to scientific observation. The hermeneutical method is indispensable to historical and artistic discourse, and is also applied in law, theology, literature and philosophy.

Gadamer's attack on the primacy of science came in reaction to a phase in Anglo-American philosophy of logical positivism, which founded itself on the scientific method as a means to establish truths linking all the sciences. He believed that no science was free of subjectivity and human drives, as a human had to be performing any scientific study. He argues against the possibility of science having an objective method to attain understanding. He criticizes the methodologies of the natural sciences and the attempt to use these methodologies toward human sciences. He holds that human experience is situated in language, and is not dissociable from a prejudicial stance, which is what affords us perspective and subjectivity. Gadamer's qualified defense of prejudice and tradition would pose a difficult challenge to the dominant culture of post-war Germany.

Gadamer was influenced by Heidegger's phenomenological method and saw meaning as experience, a palpable event that takes place in time and between subjects. He maintains a poststructural relationship to language in that it is the site of human experience. However, he does not agree with the poststructural or deconstructivist attitude that this indicates the failure of language to be able to convey meaning. Gadamer felt that this was the source, instead, of the success of meaning, and he debated this point directly with Derrida. Gadamer argued that humans are all constituents of language, which grows and changes with us; that we are in language as language is in us, and that this makes for understanding between people and across history.

Gadamer started his academic life studying Plato and Aristotle and classical philology maintained its influence throughout his career. He was an admirer of modern German poets like Rilke, Stefan Geoge, and Paul Celan. He felt that poets are the most capable of telling us about our contemporary cultural climate, and not political actors. He saw the value of culture in its ability to show truth as a possession, revealed by the voice of the other. Near the end of his life, Gadamer began to study religion attentively, hoping to imagine a way toward reconciliation between religions of the world and resistance to a mechanistic and alienated vision of human destiny. Gadamer died in Heidelberg on March 14, 2002, at the age of 102.