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Catholic Hermeneutics: The Theology of Tradition and the Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer

A dissertation by Mark F. Fischer presented to the Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.   Berkeley, CA, December 12, 1983.

Part Two: The Philosophical Rehabilitation of Tradition

This part of my dissertation was almost as long as the other three parts together. It was the longest and most difficult to write because it tried to refute one of the principal claims of the Enlightenment. That was the claim that tradition is not constitutive of true knowledge. The Enlightenment rejected the contention that the received opinions of the past, as well as humanity’s imperfectly reflected common sense, form a historical context, a tradition, within which true knowledge is understood for what it is.

Part One of the dissertation traced the decline of tradition in relation to historical consciousness. The name, historical consciousness, is shorthand for the problem of alienation between the past and the present. When we reject the errors of the past, we may delude ourselves into thinking that the past has no more influence over us.

Gadamer signed my copy of Wahrheit und Method on May 19, 1980.

The aesthetic consciousness we associate with Kant solved the problem of historical consciousness, after a fashion, by regarding manifestations of past life as objects of beauty about which we make judgments. Unfortunately, Kant tried to quarantine these judgments by arguing that they do not add to empirical knowledge. The romantic hermeneutics we associate with Schleiermacher also offered a solution to historical consciousness. Schleiermacher suggested that the scholar’s task is a sensitive re-creation of the psychology of the ancient author (about whose topic the scholar mistakenly regarded himself as superior). But these solutions to the problem of alienation sidestepped the question of the truth of the ancient artifact or text. They regarded the cultural heritage as fettered by the dogmatic ideas of its age, and sought to free themselves from dogma.

Part Two of the dissertation refuted the Enlightenment claim that tradition is not constitutive of true knowledge. It did so by following the line of thought suggested by Gadamer’s chapter, in Truth and Method, on the rehabilitation of authority and tradition. It began with an analysis of the two philosophers of modernity, G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, who in Gadamer’s opinion have overcome (after a fashion) the problem of historical consciousness. Hegel and Heidegger both affirmed the insight that truth is historical.

Truth is historical, first of all, in Hegel’s sense. Hegel saw that in history one encounters the manifestations of the human spirit. Spirit is our effort to erase the distinction between what we now think – the channels of everyday thought and received opinion – and what we long to think, namely, the absolute knowledge that transcends our present thoughts. The effort of the human spirit can be seen throughout history, within which every particular truth finds its context.

Truth is historical in Heidegger’s sense as well. Heidegger believed that the possibility of uncovering truth is bequeathed to human beings by a kind of destiny. We are not in control of this destiny. What is now concealed from us, we can say, may or may not be revealed. Sometimes humanity overlooks what is right before it – for example, the meaning of being. And whenever something is revealed, Heidegger saw destiny at work. Destiny enables something to move out of obscurity, bringing a matter to human consciousness. And when an aspect of being comes to consciousness, it bestows a glimpse of destiny itself. Within the concept of destiny, which reveals some things and conceals others, being has meaning.

Truth is historical, finally, in Gadamer’s sense. He saw history as a heritage which invites us to incorporate past truth into ourselves. We do so whenever we turn our attention to it. At first, we think of the past as alien, remote, and unintelligible. With study, we find that it is human, a part of our own history, and comprehensible. How do we do this? Not by cutting ourselves off from the past. We err whenever we think that a methodical self-alienation from the past enables us to grasp its full meaning. On the contrary, understanding arises in the recognition within history of our very selves. We realize that something from the dim past is not dim at all, but a part of human history, of our history.

The rehabilitation of tradition, in short, can be seen in three ways. The first is Hegel’s recognition that there is a dialogue between past and present. In that dialogue, the past becomes intelligible, and historical consciousness is overcome. We learn, not just by means of an empirical method, but through a give and take with the past – in a dialectic by which we achieve a synthesis of thesis and antithesis.

The second path to the rehabilitation of tradition was that of Heidegger. He recognized that destiny has shaped all human initiative, and that the philosopher must humbly acknowledge the mysteries of fate, recognizing that the forces of history provide the context of human knowing. These mysteries cause some things to slip into forgetfulness, and others to rise to consciousness. We are not Cartesian subjects, bringing all to distinctness and clarity, but actors in the movement of history.

A third approach to the rehabilitation of history comes from Gadamer himself. He saw that we cultivate tradition by studying it, criticizing it in the name of today’s insights, and applying the wisdom of the past to present problems. In the act of studying, however, we acknowledge the authority of the past. Students of the humanities could focus on any subject. By the fact that they choose a given subject, whatever it is, they acknowledge its authority and their belief that they can learn from it.

Part Two of the dissertation was hard to write, in short, because it took issue with the Enlightenment’s central claim that modernity is superior to tradition and could free itself from every unexamined prejudice of the past. But at the end of Part Two, I was convinced that this claim was false. Historical consciousness does not create an unbridgeable chasm between past and present. We bridge the chasm by means of dialogue, by being humble about our human limitations, and by acknowledging the value and authority of that to which we dedicate our lives.