The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer was a modern Methuselah. He was born on February 11, 1900, and died on March 13, 2002. During his lifetime he witnessed two world wars, Hitler's seizure of power, the collapse of communism, and the reunification of Germany. In one of his final interviews, published in the German daily Die Welt, he even commented on the events of 9/11. Although Gadamer officially retired from the University of Heidelberg in 1968, this proved to be the beginning of a momentous second career. Thereafter, he was a frequent lecturer at North American universities, bringing the tidings of "hermeneutics"ˇthe art of textual interpretationˇto a new generation of students who felt alienated from indigenous American intellectual traditions.
As it so happens, I was one of them. My encounter with Gadamer occurred at a rather forsaken outpost of higher learning in Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University. Gadamer, then age seventy-six, still had a long and productive life ahead of him. At McMaster, he taught a weekly graduate seminar on a relatively minor Platonic dialogue, the Philebus, which we read aloud line by line. Little did I know it at the time, but in the class Gadamer had reprised the theme of his Habilitation, which he had completed nearly fifty years earlier under the supervision of University of Marburg classicist Paul Friedlńnder.
Gadamer's love of dialogue was palpable. He struck me as a latter-day Socrates who had missed out on his true calling in the agora of Periclean Athens by some 2,500 years. Yet Gadamer's "message" was distinctly different from Socrates's. The Athenian believed that the traditional sources of Greek wisdom, the Homeric epics, had become dysfunctional. Consequently, he instructed his youthful aristocratic protÚgÚs in the risquÚ "art of dialectic." He encouraged them to look withinˇto "know themselves"ˇrather than to accept the conventional wisdom of others. Hence, Socratic wisdom possessed an intrinsically radical quality that was inimical to tradition and inherited belief structures.
Of course, those who systematically question tradition frequently court grave risks. In 399 BC, Socrates was tried and executed for his beliefsˇan act that, in the history of democratic government, has become a permanent blot.
Gadamer, conversely, was an inveterate traditionalist. He believed that one of the great failings of the modern age was that it had lost touch with the classical sources of wisdom and authority. Only by reestablishing contact with the traditional repositories of knowledgeˇthe "great texts" of Western literature and philosophyˇcould humanity save itself from a fate of permanent disorientation and "soullessness." So it is of little wonder that his doctrines have enjoyed such an enthusiastic reception among neoconservatives as well as educators who are concerned that the Western canon is losing its sanctity. Gadamer would undoubtedly have agreed with the claim of his philosophical mentor Martin Heidegger that modern art and literature are predominantly "destructive." In a late interview, he opined that great art is always rooted in the life of a "people"ˇin German, das Volk. This was Gadamer's way of ridiculing what he saw as the irresponsible cosmopolitanism of aesthetic modernism. Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was Everyman. Homer's Odysseus was a Greek.
Longevity is not always a blessing. But there can be no doubt that Gadamer exploited his durability to maximum advantage. In his case, this was imperative, since by scholarly standards Gadamer was distinctly a late bloomer. Until the age of sixty, the University of Heidelberg philosopher had authored merely one bookˇan uneventful one at that. But that situation would change radically in 1960, when the publication of Truth and Method helped catapult him to international renown.
Traditionally, philosophy has been synonymous with the quest for truthˇalthough philosophers have disagreed bitterly about how best to conduct the search. Rationalists believe that, since experience is a realm of change and variability, "ideas"ˇunchanging and supratemporalˇprovide the best guarantee of timeless knowledge. Empiricists, conversely, subscribe to Jeremy Bentham's caustic view that philosophical precepts that are devoid of a basis in experience are "nonsense on stilts."
In the history of philosophy, hermeneutics as represented by Gadamer is something of a wild card. It claims that the quest for certainty is itself a false path and that the pursuit of objective knowledge has needlessly abridged the richness and scope of human experience. Consequently, in Gadamer's view, for eons philosophers have in essence been barking up the wrong tree.
In making such claims Gadamer relied on insights that had been codified by Heidegger. Gadamer studied with Heidegger when the philosopher moved to Marburg (from Freiberg) in 1923. One of the revelations of Jean Grondin's reverential biography is that, a year later, Heidegger sent Gadamer a devastating letter in which he cast serious doubt on the young philosopher's abilities and promise. Heidegger's words were callous and blunt: "If you cannot summon sufficient toughness toward yourself, nothing will come of you." By Gadamer's own admission, so damning was Heidegger's verdict that his philosophical self-confidence was adversely affected for years to come. Gadamer abruptly abandoned plans to write his Habilitation study with Heidegger and promptly shifted his field of study from philosophy to classics. He later avowed that one of the reasons it took him so long to produce Truth and Method was that he felt Heidegger's intimidating presence constantly lurking in the wings. When, in 1928, Heidegger left Marburg to replace Edmund Husserl in Freiberg, Gadamer felt that a giant weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Instead of feeling abandoned, Gadamer said he felt "free."
Nevertheless, there can be no doubting the fact that the apprenticeship with Heidegger, though brief, represented a watershed in Gadamer's early philosophical development. From Heidegger, Gadamer learned the lessons of "facticity": What distinguished human being-in-the-worldˇDaseinˇwas the primacy of our existential situatedness. Our pragmatic dealings with our social environment remain ontologically prior to the intellectual habitudes that have traditionally fascinated Western philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, and Kant. The "theoretical attitude"ˇthe quest for foundations that, for centuries, had been the motivating drive behind philosophical inquiryˇwas, one might say, a derivative and subaltern standpoint. It was this insight that, some thirty-five years later, Gadamer invoked in Truth and Method when he disparaged the philosophical longing for absolute knowledge. Like Heidegger before him, he viewed the quest for certainty as a paradoxical attempt to escape what was distinctive about the human condition.
Following Heidegger's lead, Gadamerian hermeneutics sought to reverse the terms of philosophical study. "Worldliness," which thinkers like Plato and Descartes denigrated as philosophical "dross," became absolutely central. Certainty, the traditional telos of philosophical inquiry, was devalued as a burdensome intellectual encumbrance. On this side of the Atlantic, his orientation has found champions among pragmatists and postmodernists such as Richard Rorty and Richard J. Bernstein who believe that his "anti-foundationalism," or rejection of atemporal claims to truth, makes him a kindred spirit.
Yet there seems to be something genuinely naive about postmodernist and pragmatist attempts to invoke Gadamer as an intellectual ally. Whereas postmodernists (if there are any remaining) like to think of themselves as leftists or progressives, there can be no doubting the conservative thrust of Gadamer's doctrines, predicated as they are on an unabashed reverence for tradition. Thus, at one point in his scholarly career, the young Heidegger protÚgÚ prided himself on the fact that he only read books that were at least two thousand years old.
Of course, over the years the hermeneutic approach has had its share of detractors. In the eyes of many, its basic flaw is that it operates in the spirit of nineteenth-century historicismˇthe relativist view that, as the historian Leopold von Ranke put it, all ages are "equally close to God." Critics have alleged that by denigrating claims to objective truth hermeneutics abandons us to a no-man's-land of philosophical relativism. In this respect, one could say that hermeneutics' vindication of existential situatedness ends up making a virtue out of a necessity.
In the 1920s and '30s, talk of the "crisis of historicism" was rife. After all, it may be methodologically useful to claim that human knowledge is temporally and historically bound, but it also seems to deprive us of a basis for orientation as ethical and political beings. During the 1920s, the lack of ethical grounding was a complaint commonly leveled against Heidegger's existentialism. He sought to remedy this deficiency through the concept of "decisiveness" or "resolve." According to this view, the specific content of one's life choices didn't matter so much; what was important was that one choose emphatically or decisively. But this approach didn't seem to make much of a difference, since the question of the content or direction of "resolve" remained unspecified. Heidegger's students regularly mocked him by claiming, "I am 'resolved,' but to what end I know not."
As a resolute traditionalist, Gadamer had few sympathies for Heideggerian "resolve." By the same token, it seems worthwhile to inquire whether his aversion to strong philosophical judgments was un-Socratic. On the one hand, Socrates incarnated a philosophical modesty with which Gadamer profoundly identified. In the Apology the Athenian claimed, with his trademark flair for irony, that he was the wisest of men because he possessed an acute awareness of his own ignorance: "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."
On the other hand, Socrates's employment of the dialectical method, the so-called elenchus, aimed at considerably more than negative knowledge. For this reason, it seems radically incompatible with Gadamer's ethical "conventionalism": the view that, instead of making waves, we should follow the rules and procedures of the existing social order. Socrates's entire being as a philosopher was directed against such an orientation.
In fact, the pitfalls of ethical conformism are the central theme of the early dialogues, which were, of course, written by Plato. In his typically provocative manner, Socrates would query his fellow Athenians about the nature of "virtue": courage, piety, justice, beauty, and so forth. Inevitably, the conventionalist orientationˇi.e., the commonplaces of the Athenian "street"ˇfails insofar as it is insufficiently universal. Socrates's interlocutors offer partial definitions of these concepts (e.g., Laches's deficient definition of courage as "not running away in battle"), whereas Socrates is searching for ultimate truths: "beauty itself," "justice itself," "goodness itself." In this respect, Gadamer's veneration of traditionˇas in the claim from Truth and Method that "understanding itself should be thought of not so much as an action of subjectivity, but as entering into the happening of tradition in which past and present are constantly mediated" (italics mine)ˇfalls considerably short of the epistemological demands of Socratic wisdom.
Gadamer employs the lyrical expression "fusion of horizons" to describe how past and present mesh. The phrase is metaphorically rich but substantively impoverishedˇin this respect, its limitations parallel those of Heideggerian "resolve." Although we are told the horizons in question are supposed to "fuse," we are provided with no procedural or methodological directives as to how this merger should in fact take place.
In his introductory remarks in the acknowledgments section, Jean Grondin offers a brief account of how his biography came to be written. The initial stimulus was provided by the sensational revelations concerning Heidegger's involvement with Nazism that surfaced during the late 1980s. When Grondin, a self-professed Gadamerian and professor of philosophy at the University of Montreal, first broached the idea, the Master sought to discourage himˇno doubt owing in part to his own prodigious modesty. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder: Were there also elements of the philosopher's own political past that he would prefer remain unexcavated?
Gadamer's other grounds for resistance pertained to a problematic German literary tradition whose sins were best represented by the circle surrounding the poet Stefan George. Since Gadamer came to know many Georgians in Marburg during the 1920s, it was a debility he presumably knew of firsthand. Under the influence of the Romantic cult of genius, George-Kreis members were prone to writing fawning and compendious hagiographies. The most notable examples were Friedrich Gundolf's biography of Goethe and the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz's lionizing study of Frederick II. In retrospect these studies represent historical curiosities: They testify to excess and the risk of rapturous, "empathic" scholarship. The idea was to intuit one's way into the protagonist's psyche. The values of critical scholarship were explicitly scorned insofar as they risked undermining the intended apotheosis.
Not only did Grondin ignore Gadamer's warnings and admonitions. At virtually every turn, his efforts rival the hagiographic indulgences of the George cult practitioners. According to a well-known Nietzschean adage, "One repays a teacher poorly by remaining a disciple." Grondin would have done well to have heeded it.
In a 1945 speech, "On Germany and the Germans," Thomas Mann observed that "there are not two Germanys, an evil and a good, but only one, which, through devil's cunning, transformed its best into evil." During the Third Reich Mann opted for exile. He realized early on that the idea of achieving a modus vivendi with the National Socialist dictatorship was out of the question. The maxim from "On Germany and the Germans" was Mann's rejoinder to scholars and intellectuals who claimed the country's cultural traditions remained unimplicated in the catastrophe of 1933˝45. Indeed, as historians have shown, many German humanists, convinced that the Western democracies were past their prime and that Germany's hour had struck, were extremely eager to climb on board the Nazi bandwagon.
A number of German scholars, like Gadamer, claimed to have sought refuge from the gathering storm in so-called inner emigration. It was a concept that Mann flatly refused to accept. How could one find inner peace in the midst of unprecedented tyranny? Mann's son Klaus brilliantly dramatized this dilemma in his 1936 novel Mephisto, a roman Ó clef about an actor who engages in a series of piecemeal compromises with the regime until finally he realizes that he has in fact sold his soul.
The most problematic aspect of Grondin's biography concerns its status as an apologia writ large for Gadamer's conduct during the Third Reich. In order to silence potential critics, Grondin employs a two-pronged defense: (a) Gadamer unequivocally resisted the lures of Nazism; (b) even in those cases where Gadamer willingly went along with the regime, he was circumstantially justified in doing so. That claims a and b happen to be mutually exclusive seems never to have crossed Grondin's mind.
To account for Gadamer's questionable acts of political accommodation, Grondin employs the hermeneutic approach: He tries to intuit himself into the frame of mind of those Germans who wholeheartedly supported the regime. In doing so, he repeatedly paints the Nazis as a perfectly reasonable and legitimate alternative: Germany had tried democracy, but it was a political experiment that failed miserably. Moreover, Hitler came to power in a quasi-legal manner and thus enjoyed an aura of legitimacy. In Germany's last free election, the Nazis were the biggest vote getters. In view of the draconian character of the Treaty of Versailles, many of Hitler's revanchiste geopolitical claims seemed perfectly justified to everyday Germans. Grondin makes Nazism out to be such an attractive political option that, in the end, one wonders why any reasonable German would have resisted its lures.
Ironically, though, what Grondin's "sympathetic" method demonstrates is the moral bankruptcy of the hermeneutic approach. To wit: If one "intuited oneself into the frame of mind" of Hitler's victims rather than his followers, one would, of course, arrive at a very different set of conclusions. Moreover, many of the claims Grondin makes on behalf of the Nazis' early successes are at best half truths. The Nazis were Germany's leading vote getter. But in the November 1932 elections they garnered a plurality of 33.1 percent, which meant that two-thirds of the German electorate rejected their program. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 may have been draconian. But to conclude that the Nazi dictatorship was the only politically available mechanism to redress its injustices is false and misleading. Here, too, the ethical indigence of the "conventionalist" approach, which Grondin takes over from Gadamer himself, stands fully exposed.
Unlike Heidegger, who was banned from university life for five years after the war for his connections with the regime, Gadamer never joined the Nazi party. By the same token, he was hardly a convinced democrat. Like numerous German conservatives, Gadamer undoubtedly disagreed with many of the particulars of National Socialist rule. Judged by mandarin caste standards, Nazi methodsˇconcentration camps, anti-Jewish boycotts, "strength through joy" histrionicsˇwere crude. But such details never seemed to interfere with Gadamer's acceptance of the regime as a whole.
Thus, in 1933 Gadamer, along with other Marburg professors, signed a public declaration of allegiance to the National Socialist state. The avowal was translated into a variety of languages and circulated abroad. Its aim was to demonstrate emphatically in the court of international public opinion that the Nazi dictatorship had broad support among the German populace, especially among the ranks of the BildungsbŘrgertum, or educated elite.
In 1934 Gadamer wrote a scholarly article justifying Plato's banishment of the poets in the Republic. Even the well-disposed Grondin finds Gadamer's views indefensible, acknowledging that they approximate the Nazis' "infamous campaign against 'degenerate art.'" In retrospect, the study may be read as an allegory of the Weimar Republic's rise and fall. Its none-too-subtle subtext is that excessive cultural freedom breeds anarchy. Only recourse to a strong state, as Plato recommends in his authoritarian treatise, will put an end to social and political chaos. Gadamer praises the Platonic ideal of "educational dictatorship" as follows: "In Plato justice of the state is not founded negatively on the weakness of individuals whose prudence leads them into a contract [here, a shibboleth for "liberalism"]. Instead the human being is political in a positive sense because he is capable of rising above his insistence on himself." The latter claim reveals Gadamer's longing for a "tutelary state"ˇone that, like the educational dictatorship of the Republic, supervises, forms, and shapes the individual at every step. The moral of the story: When it comes to politics, one should be careful about what one wishes for.
The following year, as Gadamer encountered difficulties in securing a permanent teaching position, he voluntarily enrolled in a Nazi political-reeducation camp. With any lingering doubts about his political reliability eliminated, he succeeded in receiving professorial appointments at Marburg (1937) and Leipzig (1938).
In order to defend Gadamer against the charge of being pro-Nazi, Grondin trots out the canard that, during his youth, the philosopher had many Jewish friends. But a better litmus test of Gadamer's philo-Semitism would be to examine how those friendships fared during the bitter years of National Socialist persecution. To judge by this standard, the record looks pretty shaky. So focused was Gadamer on "making a career" under the Nazis that, on at least two occasions, he stepped in to fill positions that had been vacated by Jewish friends who had been dismissed on racial grounds: Richard Kroner (University of Kiel) in 1934 and Erich Frank (University of Marburg) in 1935˝36. In his defense of Gadamer's actions, Grondin goes so far as to ape National Socialist terminology, claiming that the Jews had been "furloughed" (beurlaubt)ˇa prototypical instance of Nazi newspeakˇrather than "fired" in accordance with a 1933 Aryanization decree, as was in fact the case.
Time and again, Gadamer's own ethical transgressions are compounded by Grondin's post hoc rationalizations. "It was certainly a delicate situation to sit in for a Jewish colleague, but what was Gadamer supposed to do?" inquires Grondin plaintivelyˇas though Gadamer's career prospects were self-evidently the major issue at stake rather than his embarrassing willingness to cooperate with a lawless and racist dictatorship. "Should he have protested?" Grondin continues. Yes, that's exactly what Gadamer should have done! For by protesting or having otherwise expressed his disapproval of this horrific regime, Gadamer would have saved the honor of philosophy as well as his own reputation. Yet for reasons Grondin never fully explains, he insists that the only option available to Gadamer at the time was the low road: "In his situation he could only think about getting along himself." Grondin seems not to understand that philosophy's distinctiveness as a vocation is that in such situations it acts on the basis of principle rather than self-interest or survival. Those who view Grondin's biography as a conte morale about how hermeneutics functions in times of duress are surely in for a major letdown.
Undoubtedly, Gadamer's greatest compromise with the Nazi regime concerns his lecture "Volk and History in Herder's Thought," presented on May 29, 1941, at the "German Institute" in occupied Paris. To appreciate the performative dimension of Gadamer's text, one must take into account that the various German Institutes were purely and simply vehicles of Nazi cultural hegemony. As such, there could be no illusions about their explicit political function: to convince wavering European elites of the legitimacy of a Nazi-dominated Europe and to convey the sense that Germany's military potency was backed by an immense cultural prowess. The Wehrmacht had done its job in the trenches. It was now time for German humanists to do their part in the battle for the hearts and minds of Europe's elites and opinion leaders.
The themes of Gadamer's lecture harmonized perfectly with the regime's ideological aims. Gadamer argued that Enlightenment rationalism had played itself out. The new era would be characterized by the ascendancy of the German Volk idea, the ideological lineage from Herder to Hitler, as it were. With Germany's blitzkrieg triumph of June 1940 (the date of the fall of France), the sun had set on Enlightenment universalism. It was now time for the reign of national particularisms, and, in this regard, Germany's claim to superiority seemed self-evident. The philosopher's job was to provide intellectual legitimation for the new geopolitical order. In keeping with this objective, Gadamer concludes the lecture with a glowing encomium to Germany's battlefield triumphs: Herder's "unpolitical intuition of . . . the fate of Germany during his time, and perhaps the fate of such political belatedness is the reason why the German concept of das Volkˇin contrast to the democratic slogans of the Westˇproves to have the power to create a new political and social order in an altered present." After reading these lines, can there be any doubt that, in spring 1941, Gadamer made the Nazis' cause his own?
To make matters worse, Gadamer, fearing that his partisanship for the regime would be exposed in the eyes of posterity, suppressed "Volk and History in Herder's Thought" from the ten-volume edition of his Collected Works. In its stead he furtively substituted a politically anodyne Herder essay he wrote twenty-five years after "Volk and History." In this way, Gadamer hoped to cover his tracks. He was successful until a tenacious German journalist broke the scandal in the early 1970s.
The stated intention of Grondin's biography is to examine how hermeneutics, as personified by Gadamer, fares under real-world conditions. At the outset, Grondin admits that he was motivated to undertake this study by the damaging allegations concerning Heidegger's conduct under the Nazis. Surely, the tale of Gadamer's activities during the Nazi years must yield a more uplifting account.
Not really. At virtually every pivotal juncture, Gadamer caved in to the regime without a fight. To judge by these lights, hermeneutics is a philosophy of conformism. It turns conciliation with political evil into an art form. Apparently, in the hermeneutic lexicon, "civil courage" is an unknown virtue, a foreign phrase.
Grondin is a poor biographer because, as the old Tammy Wynette ballad goes, come hell or high water, he stands by his man. To achieve his aims, Grondin must relinquish the tools of critical scholarship. He proceeds by according the status of unquestioned "truth-value" to all of Gadamer's own biographical declarations and statements. But scholarship demands that one abandon hero worship and employ critical standards and methods. For unless one subjects the self-serving declarations of one's protagonist to scrutiny, one ends up writing in the hagiographic mode. Readers and critics are bound to feel cheated.
Grondin errs most seriously in thinking that in Gadamer's case he can circumvent the judgment of history. Of course, history has been replete with despotisms and petty dictatorships. In all cases, there have been men and women who simply played along. But there was only one Nazism. As Adorno astutely remarks in Negative Dialectics: "Hitler has compelled humanity to accept a new categorical imperative: orient your thinking and acting so that Auschwitz would never repeat itself, so that nothing similar would recur."
Grondin proceeds as if one could blithely discount this maxim in Gadamer's case by virtue of his protagonist's "greatness." What he fails to realize, however, is that the fact that his subject is a philosopher makes his cooperation with the regime all the more unpardonable. We expect philosophers to make ethically informed choices. To go along with the crowdˇespecially in the case of a pathologically genocidal regimeˇis not only not good enough. It is a betrayal of the very principles for which philosophy stands.
It is in this respect that hermeneutics, as personified by Gadamer, has proved to be a moral and political failure. The flip side of hermeneutics' trademark "farewell to principle" is its own historically documented ethical complacency during the Hitler years. By attempting to silence Gadamer's criticsˇGrondin refers to them as "witch-hunters" and "inquisitors"ˇthe biographer ironically violates one of hermeneutics' cardinal precepts: Proceed as if your adversary may be right. Grondin's exaggerated defensiveness gives rise to the suspicion that there may be still more skeletons in the hermeneutic closet waiting to be unearthed. Thereby, he unintentionally produces an effect diametrically opposed to the one that his biography, qua exercise in "memory-management" and "damage control," doggedly strives to convey.
Richard Wolin is the author of Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl L÷with, Hans Jonas, Herbert Marcuse (Princeton University Press, 2001).