Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Heart of Hermeneutics

Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer on Jan. 25, 2002. Gadamer died March 14, 2002. He was 102 (Photo: AFP).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a renowned figure of 20th-century German philosophy whose magnum opus, Truth and Method (1960), contributed enormously to the field of hermeneutics, the study of the understanding and meaning of texts, died on March 13 in Heidelberg, Germany. He was 102.

Gadamer was famously modest and reluctant to talk about himself. Perhaps because his life was marked by personal difficulties—the death of his mother at an early age, caring for his disabled brother, and his own handicap after contracting polio—he fiercely guarded his privacy. The Latin epigram he chose for his Philosophsiche Lehrjahre  (Philosophical Apprenticeships, 1977) was telling: “De nobis ipse silemus” (We keep quiet about ourselves).

Gadamer adhered to the principle that philosophy was useless unless it could be understood, and hence, in his writing he belied his discipline’s reputation for excessive abstruseness. His writing is known for its conversational, dynamic quality. Eckhart Nickel, writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about Gadamer’s legacy for the city of Heidelberg, said: “His attention to the traditions of the genuinely classical Greek art of conversation predestined him to become the Homo heidelbergensis par excellence.”

Gadamer was born in 1900 in Marburg, the stronghold of Neo-Kantianism. He studied in Breslau and Munich before returning to Marburg to write his dissertation on Paul Natorp, a Plato scholar and philosopher. He was only 22 years old when he received his doctorate, although he would later dismiss these academic credentials as “not much use” in his typically understated way.

In 1923 Gadamer met and began his apprenticeship with Marburg’s most prominent young philosopher, Martin Heidegger. He wrote a second doctoral dissertation under Heidegger and became a Privatdozent, an external member of the faculty entitled to teach but without a full-time position and receiving little salary. Later, he taught at Kiel, Marburg, and Leipzig universities.

In Truth and Method, Gadamer asserted that experience, culture, and prior understandings render the scientific ideal of objectivity impossible to achieve. In the same sense, the meaning of a text is mutable, because it is subject to the interplay between the author’s intention and the reader’s interpretation.

Throughout his life, Gadamer avoided politics. Unlike his mentor Heidegger, Gadamer did not support the Nazi regime or its ideology. As a result, Soviet authorities allowed him to keep his teaching post at Leipzig after World War II.