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A Review of: Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography
by by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala

The Yale University Press Studies in Hermeneutics Series has been publishing for several years, under the direction of Joel Weinsheimer, outstanding books on, and related to, hermeneutics. One of these is Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by the Canadian philosopher Jean Grondin. This is not just a biography of a man who witnessed at the age of twelve the sinking of the Titanic and at the age of 102 the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York-it also happens to be the biography of one of the greatest philosophers of our era, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), who gave birth to hermeneutics, a philosophy now celebrated around the world. With hermeneutics (from the Greek hermeneuein, meaning "interpret", "explicate", "translate"), Gadamer has established a new philosophical position which responds to our time by eschewing solutions which are hierarchically ordered in an absolute transcendental system." "The soul of hermeneutics," Gadamer always said, "consists in the possibility that the other might be right. Philosophy begins and ends in the Socratic admission of one's own ignorance." And if philosophy is nothing else than its time embodied in thought (as Hegel argued), an intellectual response to a significant event such as a technological disaster, political misunderstanding and cultural failure, then Gadamer's philosophy is nothing other than a response to his own history, his own experiences during the explosive 20th century.
Grondin has done a great job showing (through interviews, personal correspondence with Gadamer, and extensive archival research), how Gadamer's life and temperament was conditioned by the necessity to "understand other people," especially since he was living through a century of wars and catastrophes during which nobody seemed to be listening to anyone else. Besides the Introduction, Illustrations and Epilogue, the biography is divided into 16 chapters each of which, in chronological order, focuses on important periods of Gadamer's life. A biography of Gadamer needs no particular justification for being written, but Grondin, in the acknowledgment section, offers a brief account of how this biography came about. Initially, he intended to show how Gadamer avoided committing the same political mistake his teacher Martin Heidegger made by involving himself with Nazism. Subsequently, he realized this was just a good starting point for a first (and probably not last) biography of Gadamer. This problem is very well investigated in the book (through chapters 8 to 11); Grondin clearly shows how Gadamer, without supporting Hitler, but also without actively opposing him, negotiated for himself an apolitical position in the academic life of the University, and was able to continue his philosophical work (emigration, it should be stressed, was never considered by scholars and teachers who were not the victims of racist persecution). Gadamer never made the mistake of joining the Nazi party because he was a staunch liberal who, like numerous German conservatives of the time, undoubtedly disagreed with many of the particulars of National Socialist rule. Gadamer was also an inveterate traditionalist, who believed that one of the unfortunate widespread characteristics of the modern age was that it had lost touch with the classical sources of wisdom and authority. He was convinced that it was only by reestablishing ties with the "classics" of Western culture (surely not by burning them) that humanity could save itself from the fate of permanent disorientation caused by technological progress. Most of Gadamer's friends-Karl Lwith, Karl Jaspers, Richard Kroner, and Jakob Klein-were Jews, as was his wife, Kte Lekeusch, who was imprisoned for having wished, at a bus stop, Hitler's end.
Grondin rightly gives a lot of space to two important men in Gadamer's life: his father, who was an important professor of pharmacy in Germany, and his teacher, Martin Heidegger, who was considered the most important philosopher since Hegel. Although Gadamer's father always concerned himself with his son's education, he intensely disapproved of his humanistic inclinations. Just before his death he told Heidegger: "Oh, I am worried about my son," "Why so?" inquired Heidegger, "He is doing very well. Of that I am fully confident. He is one year away from his Habilitation." "Yes," the father sighed, "but do you really believe that philosophy is enough of a vocation to occupy one's life?" Grondin believes that Gadamer's endeavours to bolster the way of knowing the Geisteswissenschaften (humanities) "by giving them an independent legitimacy" were in part attempts to justify himself before his father's scientific and methodological faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his magnum opus of 1960 Truth and Method "was a sudden event of truth." Grondin explains: Gadamer intended to demonstrate that "method could only limp along behind: truth and then method, truth before method. That this kind of truth exists, that we cannot live without it, and that method threatens to become one of the new idols-this is what Gadamer's hermeneutics wants to recall." This classic of the post-war German philosophical tradition showed that "theory of understanding" can never succeed in acquiring a definitive grasp of its "object"; it is already too late when we try to construct a complete method of explicating that about which we have, apriori, made numerous unconscious assumptions. "Knowledge" and "understanding" can never be "grounded" because they are themselves the ground on which we are always standing: knowing does not always mean certifying and controlling. Gadamer learned this from Heidegger, who theorized that human beings are creatures who must continually interpret their world, since they are not neutral, out-of-the-way "observers of this world"; rather, in every case, they are themselves frighteningly implicated, always expressing their own relation to everything in their world. For a thinker like Grondin, science's "objective images" of the world are nothing other than constructs which spring from man's hermeneutical constitution', a way of existing that always involves efforts to understand his world, to anticipate its workings in order to survive in it. It is important to remember that Gadamer's polemic is not directed against science, but against the fascination and anesthesia that idolizing it engenders, because what can really be methodologically controlled is only a small part of our life experience.
In chapter 14, entirely dedicated to Truth and Method, Grondin makes an important point: He explains that this hermeneutical predicament of ours is not at all tragic, because it is precisely our "limitedness" that enables us to learn from each other and always remain open to other experiences, as well as become aware of the commonalities and solidarities that support us. The significance of Gadamer's contribution lies precisely in this recognition that our innate limitation (the impossibility of an unsituated consciousness) affords us the opportunity to finally start understanding ourselves.
According to Gadamer, history does not belong to us, but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we must understand how we function in the family, society and the state in which we live. This clearly shows how Gadamer appealed to Hegel to free the study of history from the fetters of methodology. He relied on Heidegger to side-step Hegel's conviction that absolute knowledge is possible. Hermeneutics, thanks to Gadamer, has become today an international philosophical koin that warns us against self-produced metaphysical illusions, and counters the insistence that full knowledge and understanding of our past can be attained.
Gadamer's profound ontological revolution consisted in "overcoming objective metaphysics" through interpretation and language: things are what they truly are only within the realms of "interpretation" and "language". It is not an accident that Gadamer's most famous dictum, "Being that can be understood is language," was meant primarily to underscore a crucial limitation. We communicate meaningfully with ourselves and others only insofar as we find words to describe that which we are attempting to make understandable. And moreover, we require not "propositions" but "conversations". Gadamer was probably the most "undogmatic thinker" of this century because he considered that the experience of a genuine "conversation" reminded us of a truth in which the unspoken part of what is said presents no hindrance, but rather a condition of truth. "What the tool of method does not achieve must-and really can-be achieved by a discipline of questioning and inquiring, a discipline that guarantees truth."
The two final chapters of Grondin's biography mostly deal with the many debates and encounters Gadamer had with personalities such as T. Adorno, and M. Horkheimer. When Pope John Paul II met Gadamer at the Castelgandolfo meetings of 1983, he said publicly "that the Providence had accorded him the honor of giving Professor Gadamer his hand." Although Gadamer was not religious, he presented himself as a Protestant and had no problem admitting that his own conception of self-understanding had a distinctly "pietistic undertone." Piety reminded Gadamer that it is not possible for us to know' ourselves; self-understanding is a never-ending process-an activity that must be taken up again and again, a duty always still to be performed. This was also his position with regard to the terrorist attack on the Twin towers of New York a month before his death. He made the simple comment, "Es ist mir recht unheimlich geworden" ("the world has become quite strange to me"). Gadamer had devoted his entire life to showing how we are beings who must try to understand ourselves through dialogue and conversations, and how the hermeneutical experience, the endless process of searching for insight, teaches that there can never be an absolute ground for any side to decide it has a monopoly on what is right. The event of 9/11 was an instance of humanity's utter failure to reach understanding.
Grondin's biography should not only be read as a biography of Hans-Georg Gadamer, but also as an introduction to "conversational philosophy", hermeneutics, the philosophy that focuses on today's most vital enterprise: "the self-understanding of humankind."

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