Cover image for Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer Edited by Lorraine Code

Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer

Edited by Lorraine Code


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02243-7

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Re-Reading the Canon

Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer

Edited by Lorraine Code

Images of and references to women are so rare in the vast corpus of his published work that there seems to be no "woman question" for Hans-Georg Gadamer. Yet the authors of the fifteen essays included in this volume show that it is possible to read past Gadamer's silences about women and other Others to find rich resources for feminist theory and practice in his views of science, language, history, knowledge, medicine, and literature. While the essayists find much of value in Gadamer's work, he emerges from their discussion as a controversial figure. Some contributors see him as promoting genuine respect for and engagement with Otherness: others claim that in a Gadamerian conversation the Other has no voice. For some, Gadamer's immersion in tradition is an impediment to feminist inquiry; for others, cognizant of the need to understand tradition well in order to contest its intransigence or benefit from its insights, his way of engaging tradition is especially productive. Some contributors take issue with the separation he maintains between philosophy and politics; others find problems in his relative silence on matters of embodiment; still others maintain that a "fusion of horizons" amounts to a colonizing of difference. But a common aim of each of these controversies is to discern what feminists can learn from Gadamer as well as what limitations feminist reinterpretations of his work must inevitably encounter.


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Images of and references to women are so rare in the vast corpus of his published work that there seems to be no "woman question" for Hans-Georg Gadamer. Yet the authors of the fifteen essays included in this volume show that it is possible to read past Gadamer's silences about women and other Others to find rich resources for feminist theory and practice in his views of science, language, history, knowledge, medicine, and literature. While the essayists find much of value in Gadamer's work, he emerges from their discussion as a controversial figure. Some contributors see him as promoting genuine respect for and engagement with Otherness: others claim that in a Gadamerian conversation the Other has no voice. For some, Gadamer's immersion in tradition is an impediment to feminist inquiry; for others, cognizant of the need to understand tradition well in order to contest its intransigence or benefit from its insights, his way of engaging tradition is especially productive. Some contributors take issue with the separation he maintains between philosophy and politics; others find problems in his relative silence on matters of embodiment; still others maintain that a "fusion of horizons" amounts to a colonizing of difference. But a common aim of each of these controversies is to discern what feminists can learn from Gadamer as well as what limitations feminist reinterpretations of his work must inevitably encounter.

Contributors are Linda Martín Alcoff, William Cowling, Gemma Corradi Fiumara, Marie Fleming, Silja Freudenberger, Susan Hekman, Susan-Judith Hoffmann, Grace M. Jantzen, Patricia Altenbernd Johnson, Laura Kaplan, Robin Pappas, Robin May Schott, Meili Steele, Veronica Vasterling, Georgia Warnke, and Kathleen Roberts Wright.

Lorraine Code is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Graduate Programs in Social and Political Thought, and Women's Studies, at York University in Toronto. Her other books include Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories (editor, 2000), Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on (Gendered) Locations (1995), What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (1991), and Epistemic Responsibility (1987).



Nancy Tuana


Introduction: Why Feminists Do Not Read Gadamer

Lorraine Code

Part I: Hermeneutic Projects, Feminist Interventions

Engendering Gadamerian Conversations

1. (En)gendering Dialogue Between Gadamer’s Hermeneutics and Feminist Thought

Kathleen Roberts Wright

2. Hermeneutics and Constructed Identities

Georgia Warnke

3. Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics and Feminist Projects

Susan-Judith Hoffmann

4. Gadamer’s Conversation: Does the Other Have A Say?

Marie Fleming

5. The Development of Hermeneutic Prospects

Gemma Corradi Fiumara

6. Postmodern Hermeneutics? Toward a Critical Hermeneutics

Veronica Vasterling

7. The Ontology of Change: Gadamer and Feminism

Susan Hekman

8. Toward a Critical Hermeneutics

Robin Pappas and William Cowling

Part II: Feminist Issues: Enlisting Gadamerian Resources

9. Gadamer’s Feminist Epistemology

Linda Martín Alcoff

10. The Hermeneutic Conversation as Epistemological Model

Silja Freudenberger

11. The Horizon of Natality: Gadamer, Heidegger, and the Limits of Existence

Grace M. Jantzen

12. Questioning Authority

Patricia Altenbernd Johnson

13. Gender, Nazism, and Hermeneutics

Robin May Schott

14. Three Problematics of Linguistic Vulnerability

Meili Steele

15. Three Applications of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: Philosophy-Faith-Feminism

Laura Kaplan

Selected Bibliography



Introduction: Why Feminists Do Not Read Gadamer

Lorraine Code

Gadamer and Feminists: Connections and Conflicts

The title of this essay reads somewhat ironically for the Introduction to a volume that offers fifteen astute, provocative, creative-critical feminist re-readings of the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer. It plays on the title of the Introduction to the Nietzsche volume in this Rereading the Canon series: "Why Feminists Read Nietzsche" (Oliver and Pearsall 1998); but it attests, also, to the relative sparseness of feminist engagement with Gadamer by contrast with work that addresses, finds resources in, and challenges even so reputedly misogynist a philosopher as Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, the year of Gadamer’s birth. In his intellectual autobiography which introduces the 1997 volume The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer in the Library of Living Philosophers series, Gadamer testifies to the enormity of Nietzsche’s influence during his Marburg years that began in 1919, where young philosophers critical of the "methodologism"of the neo-Kantian school were enthusiastic in their response to Husserl’s art of phenomenological description. But, Gadamer observes, "it was ‘life-philosophy’, above all—behind which stood the European event of Friedrich Nietzsche—that was taking hold of our whole feeling for life": he remarks that "behind all the boldness and riskiness of our existential engagement—as a still scarcely visible threat to the romantic traditionalism of our culture—stood the gigantic form of Friedrich Nietzsche with his ecstatic critique of everything, including all the illusions of self-consciousness" (Gadamer 1997a, 5, 6). My entry into this discussion through a contrast with Nietzsche rather than by situating Gadamer in relation to the more frequently cited influences on his philosophy—of whom Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger are the most notable—comes out of a sense of how intriguing it is that a philosopher so embedded in tradition, who often betrays a certain conservativism in his respect for it, should claim so early and overwhelming a debt to Nietzsche, the arch-iconoclast, the bitingly polemical, ironic critic of western philosophical, religious, and moral traditions. The contrast is provocative especially because Nietzsche’s iconoclasm has had a certain attraction for feminists committed to displacing and breaking with an intransigently patriarchal philosophical tradition, by comparison with a pervasive—if not seamless—scepticism about whether or how a space could be opened for feminist debate with so tradition-saturated a thinker as Gadamer, and an attendant puzzlement about what he can offer to feminist projects.

In their Introduction to the Nietzsche volume the editors observe that feminist readings of Nietzsche have tended to take one of two directions: asking "how to interpret Nietzsche’s remarks about women and femininity"—thus how to contend with his infamously derogatory stereotypes of women—; or concentrating on questions about how Nietzsche’s philosophy can stand as a resource for feminist thought, on what feminists can gain from him. (Oliver and Pearsall 1998, 2). Because images of or references to women, derogatory or otherwise, are so rare in the vast corpus of his published work, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no "woman question" for Gadamer: hence variations on and modalities of the second option are more readily available to feminists reading his work. As will indeed be clear from the essays in this volume, feminists turning to Gadamer often read him "against the grain", past the silences about women and other Others, to discern what they might garner from a Gadamerian approach to language, history, knowledge, politics, or literature; and/or to evaluate the philosophical significance of the consistent maleness of his putative interlocutors and the rarefied academic and social universe he has inhabited throughout his life: this masculine milieu that he depicts so clearly in his 1997 intellectual autobiography.

On February 11 2000, when the essays in this volume were being completed, Hans-Georg Gadamer reached the age of 100. The bibliography of his published works in the Library of Living Philosophers volume runs to thirty printed pages, with an additional ten pages listing published interviews and broadcast tapes; and the publication dates run from 1922 to 1996: the final date marks the publication date of the volume itself, not the cessation of Gadamer’s philosophical writing who, more than a year after his 100th birthday was still philosophically active . In the course of a philosophical journey that traverses an entire century Gadamer has, inter alia, been elected to Academies of Arts and Sciences in Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, England, and the USA; elected Knight of the "Order of Merit" for the Arts and Sciences "the highest academic honor given in Germany"; and received Doctorates "Honoris Causa" in Germany, Poland, the USA, and Canada. His is a towering philosophical presence. Yet it would be strangely incongruous to think of him as a public intellectual, for his has been a more politically sequestered life than that of many thinkers of comparable stature: Sartre, Foucault, Derrida come to mind. Despite his having lived through a century that witnessed and participated in two world wars and through the upheavals of the new social movements of the inter-war and post-second-world war years, Gadamer’s has remained a markedly insular, scholarly life. His account of his quietistic, intentionally unobtrusive pursuit of scholarship throughout the Second World War (1997a 13–15), and his silence on matters of political ferment and social-political change during the second half of the twentieth century, are striking for what they fail to address. Moreover, the "world" he depicts in his intellectual autobiography—the long lists of the male students he "brought with [him] . . . from Frankfurt" to Heidelberg, and equally long lists of the influential, all male, philosophers and students he knew, taught, and worked with, beginning with Karl Löwith and concluding with "a great number of Americans" (1997a 17), in patterns of friendship, mentorship and discipleship, may prompt female readers to wonder where the speaking, or indeed even the listening place, for women could have been in these conversations. Thus, feminists cognizant of the social and political oppressions and philosophical exclusions that have been women’s lot throughout the history of the western world, and of the part canonical western philosophy has played in sustaining them, have to work hard to find in Gadamer a social-political ally, or a even silent friend of feminist projects.

Yet so many themes, presuppositions, methodological practices, disenchantments and commitments in his work are consonant with central aspects of second-wave feminist thinking that it is less surprising after all for feminists to turn to Gadamer than to discount him as a source of transformative insights and untried conceptual resources in their projects of rereading the post-Enlightenment western philosophical canon, contesting and reinterpreting its fundamental assumptions. Gadamer’s very embeddedness in and commitment to tradition, perhaps paradoxically, presents a way of engaging with the deep historical rootedness of the circumstances and structures feminists at the beginning of the twenty-first century have to understand and challenge, even as aspects of his immersion in tradition pose obstacles to entering into unconstrained conversation with his work.

To feminist and other theorists of subjectivity, agency, history, and knowledge who are disillusioned with an empiricist-positivist legacy that manifests itself in epistemologies of mastery and domination, with an operative conception of objectivity that requires dislocated, interchangeable knowers who stand as distant, disinterested spectators of the objects of knowledge, Gadamerian hermeneutics for which knowing is engaged, situated, dialogic, and historically conscious has much to offer. Indeed, Gadamer himself names the "barrenness" of positivism "right up to the present day new positivism" (1997a 6) among factors that have shaped his hermeneutic philosophy. Repudiating the positivistic view that knowledge worthy of the name will derive from an idealized model of knowing in the physical sciences, achieved by means of replicable empirical observations in ideal observation conditions and formulated in empirically verifiable propositions, hermeneutics is an interpretive, historically conscious practice of working to achieve understanding. For Gadamer, it draws its exemplary models of inquiry from the human sciences and, in particular, from history and from the place of art in history. Hence it is itself as much an art as it is a science; reliant on phrone\sis—practical wisdom—rather than on disengaged rationality. Whereas knowing, in the Anglo-American mainstream, tends to be conceived as an all-or-nothing matter, exemplified in discrete, punctiform, yet uniformly knowable and ubiquitously salient "facts", hermeneutic understanding is multifaceted, complex, richly textured: it varies not just quantitatively but qualitatively in its reciprocal relations among interpreters, texts and ideas. Both historically conscious and reflexively conscious of its own historicity, it is achieved dialogically, in conversations between the "foreknowledge" that comprises the "horizon" from which an interpreter enters an encounter, and texts, events, works of art, other people, that are equivalently historical. Thus Gadamer writes: "Whereas the object of the natural sciences can be described idealiter as what would be known in the perfect knowledge of nature, it is senseless to speak of a perfect knowledge of history, and for this reason it is not possible to speak of an ‘object in itself’ toward which its research is directed"(Gadamer [1960]1989, 285). Hermeneutic understanding is less definitive than orthodox empirical knowledge aims to be, but in some sense "truer to" the texts and experiences it engages.

By contrast, then, with knowledge-making projects that aim at maximal completeness, foundationally established and deductively achieved, hermeneutic understanding seeks to attain a form of coherence manifested in what Gadamer calls a "fusion of horizons". It is a difficult concept and one that, we will see, produces ambivalent responses from Gadamer’s feminist readers. For some, it signals possibilities of the communal, mutual understandings that positivist-empiricist approaches can only thwart: for others it cautions against appropriation, mergings, in which separate identities and points of view are subsumed, often to the disadvantage of less privileged participants. Yet either way, it represents a potentially rich, powerful departure from the attenuated goals and methods of positivistic inquiry.

Initially, and quite simply, Gadamer conceives of the ‘horizon’ as the aspect of a situation or standpoint that "limits the possibility of vision" (1989, 302) while ordering items within the range of vision according to their relative significance. The term is especially pertinent to historical understanding, as it points to the interpretive necessity of seeing the past in its own terms (i.e. within/as its own horizon) thus not as an aspect of the values and prejudices of the interpreter: to the necessity of placing oneself within another situation in order to understand it, while remaining open, also, to developing a critical awareness of the foreknowledge integral to one’s own horizon. Translated into everyday conversations, it cautions against naively, unthinkingly assimilating another’s point of view, values, concerns—horizon—to one’s own, and against placing one’s own beyond interpretation. Although many commentators read in such cautions a commitment to respecting and preserving otherness while endeavoring to understand the other’s horizon from within, others propose that the purpose is more accurately represented as one of overcoming particularities in the synthesis that an achieved fusion of horizons can accomplish. Gadamer names as examples of conversations that could provide starting points for discovering the co-conversant’s standpoint, his/her horizon, "certain kinds of conversation between doctor and patient" (1989, 303), or encounters between two people who are attempting to find a common ground (1997a 45): situations that reveal our preconceptions to us as much as to the other; making them ‘strange’, requiring us to re-consider them as a way of overcoming both "our own particularity . . . [and] that of the other" (1989, 305). In its historical dimension, Gadamer’s concern is with how the horizon of the present meets and interprets the horizon of the past: the horizon of the present cannot be understood apart from its past; nor can a person strip her or his past away on entering a conversation; yet understanding is possible only when the tension between past and present, be it world-historical or personal, textual or conversational, is read as a productive tension out of which, ideally, a fusion of horizons may be achieved.

Achieving understanding for Gadamer, is thus not the isolated, individualistic enterprise detached from the particularities of the world that acquiring scientific, historical, and other knowledge in Anglo-American philosophy commonly is, where self-reliance tends to be touted as an epistemic virtue and contrasted with the uncertainties of reliance on sedimented opinion or on "hearsay" or "testimony". The centrality he accords the conversational/dialogic interpretive process; his insistence on the linguisticality and historicity of the social world, points to a commonal enterprise of engagement in and with the Lebenswelt (life-world) whether the "commonality" refers to conversations with texts or to cooperative projects whose participants work together toward understanding, in dialogue with one another and/or with texts. Readers/co-conversants come to inquiry with their fore-knowledge, their pre-judgements (= Vorurteile) in place: for Gadamer, it could not be otherwise, given his starting place in human embeddedness in the world and in history: in-der-Welt-sein can only, plausibly, be historical, at a fundamental, constitutive level. Yet this recognition of the heuristic value of prejudice, pre-judgement is not without its problems for feminists and other Others; hence feminists seeking to determine what they can glean from Gadamer have to work out how to accommodate the very idea of prejudice, with its deep roots in tradition. Nonetheless, Gadamer’s insistence on the inevitability of prejudice, pre-judgement, situatedness and horizons is by no means all bad from a feminist point of view: it is in many ways more intellectually honest than "the myth of the given" and its empiricist cognates, where a cluster of curious, often tyrannical, quasi-tabula-rasa assumptions persists as more than just an ideal, to the effect that dislocated, presuppositionless, theory-neutral, value-free knowledge is both possible and necessary, not just of medium-sized material objects, but of human lives, situations, events, creative endeavors, facts, artefacts, and thoughts. As Gadamer observes (1989: 275): "there is one prejudice of the Enlightenment that defines its essence: the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power." A central objective for feminist philosophers, theorists, and activists is to interrogate the androcentricity and other centricities that, often silently, covertly, inform and indeed saturate the western social intellectual, political, social, cultural order. Feminists need to know these centricities well if they are to achieve and enact tranformative understandings. When pre-judgements and the constitutive effects of situatedness are cloaked by a veil of unknowing; unacknowledged and/or systematically disavowed, as this "prejudice against prejudice" requires, the intellectual labor of examining and contesting them is arduous indeed. Thus feminists can find cautious inspiration in the place prejudices and fore-knowledge openly occupy in Gadamerian hermeneutics: they are there from the beginning, explicitly part of what any conversation, any understanding is about. Yet the issue, as we will discover, is not just about the inescapability of prejudice, but also about which prejudices Gadamer himself is prepared to acknowledge, committed to unsettling or modifying; and here feminist endorsement of the detail of his project is more equivocal.

Now, especially in his early work, Gadamer did not conceive of hermeneutics as "an epistemology", nor, even now, is it likely that he would accept the label, especially in its Anglo-American stipulations. Not only are mainstream epistemological projects more thoroughly physical-science-based and -modelled than hermeneutics could ever be, but two of the principal sources of Gadamer’s hermeneutics are in areas where present-day orthodox epistemologists would not venture: first, the interpretation of texts, where hermeneutics traces its origins to biblical exegesis and philology; and second, experiences of works of art, and through those experiences to art’s constitutive part in the production of historical consciousness and self-consciousness. His thinking about the work of art as a source of knowledge that extends beyond itself owes a debt to Martin Heidegger, particularly in "The Origin of the Work of Art", where Heidegger talks of the work as a place where "the truth of beings has set itself to work"(Heidegger 1977,164). Truth reveals itself in the work of art, in the openness that receptivity requires: openness and receptivity that, for Gadamer, translate into the open dialogue that makes the fusion of horizons possible. These preoccupations alone give some sense of why Gadamer’s work sits uncomfortably with or in relation to the principles, goals, and methods of epistemological orthodoxy. Indeed, for the most rigorous positivist-empiricist, neither textual interpretation nor works of art can be objects, or sources, of the knowledge that it is orthodox epistemology’s business to analyze, for there is no way, empirically, of demonstrating their truth or falsity. Nonetheless, the very prejudices that prompt theorists of knowledge to exclude such knowings and understandings from their domain of inquiry are the focus of Gadamer’s attempts to undermine the Enlightenment-positivist dichotomy between reason and tradition, together with its a-historical methodologism and the dislocated picture of knowledge and knowers that it underwrites. The truncated understandings that an a-historical philosophy engenders out of its practices of abstracting from all specifiable human situations, and its relegation of language to a neutral medium through which "facts" are filtered, stated in monological, formulaic propositions and allegedly untouched by the filtering process, have prompted Gadamer to broaden and deepen the scope of his hermeneutics well beyond the places of its original inspiration.

A third source of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is also salient with reference to issues that animate this volume: his debt to nineteenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, whose term Erlebnis (roughly translated "lived experience") opens out a way of engaging in the human sciences as a study of experience and meaning, where experience is lived linguistically, and language, as productive of meaning, is constitutive of the world that these sciences, in particular, seek to understand. Here, the subject/object dichotomy that functions as a basic positivist-empiricist presupposition yields to a conception of objects of knowledge as neither autonomous in nor abstractable from processes in which knower, known, and knowing are bound together in the Lebenswelt that interpretive inquiry studies. In elaborating these ideas Gadamer, like Dilthey, maintains a methodological and thence epistemological division between the human sciences (Geisteswißenschaften) and the natural sciences (Naturwißenschaften), with the consequence that interpretive understanding, as he details it Truth and Method, pertains primarily to the methods and products of knowing in the human sciences. Yet in his philosophical autobiography Gadamer observes: "[T]he image of the natural sciences that I had in mind when I conceived my ideas for Truth and Method was quite one-sided. It is now clear to me . . . that a whole broad field of hermeneutical problems has been left out. . . . Nevertheless, the fact that a hermeneutical problematic is present in the natural sciences was already clear to me when I read Moritz Schlick’s convincing critique of the dogma of protocol sentences in 1934" (1997a 41). Not only does this observation indicate that Gadamer has come to conceive the scope of hermeneutics more broadly than he initially did, but it suggests that feminists and other Others who look to hermeneutics as a way of developing insightfully historicized understandings beyond the scope of the human sciences, and indeed stretching even into the natural sciences, need not be charged, before the fact, with distorting Gadamer’s theoretical-conceptual apparatus beyond what it can bear.

Gadamer’s historical-hermeneutic approach to interpretation is addressive rather than observational: inquirers, for him, are no removed spectators of distinct and distant "objects of knowledge", but engaged participants in conversation, dialogue with one another and with what they seek to know. They look as much to what texts, works of art, and human co-conversants have to say to them as to what they have to say to or about texts and other people: as much to the part their prejudices play in the conversation as to the fore-knowledge others bring into it. For Gadamer, the logic of this inquiry is a logic of question and answer, distinguished from formal propositional analysis by its starting point in the conviction that every thought, every philosophical theory, every text is an answer to a question: not an eternal or perennial question, but one posed out of and informed by specific historical circumstances. It is questions that open up processes of interpretation: thus, integral to interpretive inquiry are processes of uncovering the questions to which a text, a work, a point of view is a response. Understanding, then, is not a matter of winning an argument against an opponent; rather, the dialectical conversation in which this logic of question and answer is enacted "requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion."(Gadamer 1989, 367). Feminists who have learned to look at philosophical argumentation-disputation through new lenses, following Janice Moulton’s now-classic diagnosis of how "the adversary method" thwarts philosophical understanding (Moulton,1983), will find in Gadamer a potential ally on this issue. Interpretive understanding begins when someone/something addresses us and we attempt to respond; it requires a suspension of our prejudices in the sense of putting them to the question, opening up and keeping open other possibilities while taking account of its own (i.e. interpretation’s own) historicality: demonstrating "the reality and efficacy of history within understanding itself." (Gadamer1989, 299–300). Here too is a dimension of Gadamerian philosophy that could serve as a feminist resource; for feminist inquiry, virtually by definition, is situated. It eschews quests for detached, dislocated, putatively "timeless" knowledge to insist that knowledge, understanding, interpretation, and knowers are always, as Susan Bordo puts it "somewhere, and limited"(Bordo1990, 145)—historically, materially, socially-culturally located and constituted, thus predisposed to realize the significance of what Gadamer calls an effective-historical consciousness. Whether Gadamer would understand or acknowledge the histories of social-political structures, sexual and racial oppression, material plenty or scarcity; or of stereotypes that situate and constrain human beings against their will, imposing some of the limitations Bordo and other feminists refer to, is by no means clear. It is a subject for discussion in the next section of this Introduction, and in the essays that follow.

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