Authors: Hans-Georg Gadamer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German philosopher

Author Works


Platos dialektische Ethik, 1931 (Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, 1991)

Plato und die Dichter, 1934 (Plato and the Poets, 1976)

Volk und Geschichte im Denken Herders, 1942

Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 1960 (Truth and Method, 1975)

Kleine Schriften I-IV, 1967-1977

Hegels Dialektik: Fünf hermeneutische Studien, 1971 (Hegel’s Dialectic: Five Hermeneutical Studies, 1976)

Wer bin Ich und wer bist Du?, 1973 (Gadamer on Celan: “Who Am I and Who Are You?” and Other Essays, 1997)

Philosophical Hermeneutics, 1976

Vernunft im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft: Aufsätze, 1976 (Reason in the Age of Science, 1981)

Poetica, 1977

Die Aktualität des Schönen, 1977 (The Relevance of the Beautiful, 1986)

Philosophische Lehrjahre, 1977 (autobiography; Philosophical Apprenticeships, 1985)

Die Idee des Guten zwischen Plato und Aristotle, 1978 (The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, 1986)

Plato: Texte zur Ideenlehre, 1978

Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, 1980

Heideggers Wege, 1983 (Heidegger’s Ways, 1994)

Lob der Theorie: Reden und Aufsätze, 1983 (Praise of Theory: Speeches and Essays, 1998)

Gesammelte Werke, 1985-1995 (10 volumes)

Die Universität Heidelberg und die Geburt der modernen Wissenschaft, 1987

Das Erbe Europas: Beiträge, 1989

Gedicht und Gespräch: Essays, 1990

Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, 1992 (Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson, editors)

Über die Verborgenheit der Gesundheit: Aufsätze und Vorträge, 1993 (The Enigma of Health: The Art of Healing in a Scientific Age, 1996)

Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue: Essays in German Literary Theory, 1994

The Beginning of Philosophy, 1998

Hermeneutik, Ästhetik, praktische Philosophie, 1993 (Hermeneutics, Religion, and Ethics, 1999)

Anfang der Philosophie, 1996 (The Beginning of Philosophy, 1998)

Anfang der Wissens, 1999 (The Beginning of Knowledge, 2001)

Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary, 2001 (Richard E. Palmer, editor)


Hans-Georg Gadamer (GAH-duh-mur) devoted most of his life to philosophy and especially to the issues of interpretation theory, providing many influential works on philosophical hermeneutics. His father was a researcher and professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, and Gadamer was reared surrounded by intellectual pursuits despite the stirrings of World War I around him. Gadamer relates that his father’s own interests went beyond the natural sciences, and he easily surpassed his son in his ability to quote Horace. Nevertheless, he disapproved of his son’s predisposition toward literature and theater, preferring that he pursue more worthwhile studies. Gadamer was exposed to philosophy at the age of eighteen, attempting to read Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) from his father’s library without much success.{$I[AN]9810001144}{$I[A]Gadamer, Hans-Georg}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Gadamer, Hans-Georg}{$I[tim]1900;Gadamer, Hans-Georg}

His studies began, however, in humanities and classical literature, and Gadamer especially loved lyric poetry. A family friend intervened with his father, defending Gadamer’s interests and allowing him to feel more free to embark on an academic exploration of many fields. After a time at the University of Marburg, Gadamer became involved in philosophy seminars, studying with Paul Natorp and Nicolai Hartmann, among others. He received his initial doctorate summa cum laude at the age of twenty-two and then visited the University of Freiburg to meet Martin Heidegger; there, he also took seminars from Edmund Husserl. These years are chronicled in Gadamer’s autobiography, Philosophical Apprenticeships. Gadamer returned to the University of Marburg (where Heidegger soon came to teach), attended Rudolf Bultmann’s lectures, and studied under Paul Friedländer to be a classical philologist. When it came time to complete his second dissertation, he was encouraged by Friedländer to pursue philology and by Heidegger to pursue philosophy. Realizing that philosophy as he viewed it would include both, he accepted Heidegger’s offer and was launched on his career as a philosopher of hermeneutics.

The formative period in his teaching career took place against the backdrop of World War II. Unsympathetic with the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, Gadamer managed to keep his teaching positions by obscuring his sentiments but was moved around with the several reorganizations of the universities by the Nazis. He was sent from the University of Marburg to the University of Kiel in 1934 to replace a Jewish friend, Richard Kroner, who was suspended. When Kiel was reorganized in 1935, Gadamer was sent back to Marburg to teach, where he remained until 1938, when he became a professor at Leipzig. The other professors at Leipzig seemed to be more concerned with scholarship than with political obedience to the Nazi Party, and Gadamer found himself greatly at home in that freedom. He remained there until after the war, taught for several years at Frankfurt, and finally moved to the University of Heidelberg as the successor to Karl Jaspers. He remained there from 1949 until his retirement in 1968. After that time he traveled more frequently, participating in conferences and teaching philosophy students while serving as a visiting professor at Ontario’s McMaster University and at Boston College, lecturing at other North American universities as well. He died in 2002 at the age of 102.

During his years as a beginning teacher, struggling to pursue scholarship among the disruptions and tensions of World War II, Gadamer focused much of his work on the history of philosophy and of philosophical interpretation, especially the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others. Not surprisingly, the majority of his published essays and books originated in the more settled period of his professorship at Heidelberg. It was also during that time that he began to articulate his own philosophy in interpretation, publishing Truth and Method in 1960, and to attract many of the students who would adopt his philosophy and teach it to others.

Throughout his life Gadamer combined his interests in language and philosophy, focusing much of his work on the concept that the use of language and interpretations of meaning shape the human ability to understand experiences of the world. Heidegger’s thought had a profound impact upon the young Gadamer, as reflected by his later remembrances of his days as a teaching assistant and student of Heidegger in Philosophical Apprenticeships. In the work considered by many philosophers to be his most important, Truth and Method, he examines the ways in which the interpreters’ concerns and tradition shape the interpretations of texts and the interpretations in turn shape future understandings of other texts and experiences.

Much of Gadamer’s importance lies in providing an understanding of knowledge that is an alternative to the empiricist application of scientific method (as conceived in the early twentieth century) to the human sciences. Gadamer’s training in classical philosophy and philology, coupled with Heidegger’s influence on him, helped him to shape a way of looking at truth in the human sciences that could equally explain experiences of veracity arising from the arts, or even from everyday experiences. Gadamer expressed the view that the process of understanding is a historical act. For Gadamer, there was no such thing as a method of assuring truth that could be applied irrespective of history, tradition, community, or experience. The position that Gadamer framed became known as philosophical hermeneutics, indicating that he had developed out of the question of interpretation a full philosophy that spoke as much to the nature of being as to the issue of methods of interpreting. For him, these were not two separate or even separable questions. Adopting much of Heidegger’s perspective into his work, he pointed to the human situation of being thrown into an existence that is already shaped by the use of language and by the history of interpretation.

Gadamer differed from Heidegger in having a far less existential or ontological bent. He was less concerned with questions of being as such or with unearthing the depths and limits of the human condition than in understanding what we know already, and how this knowledge is constituted and framed. There is no pure experience that can be examined apart from tradition; there is no text that can be read and learned from apart from the history of experiences or from the interpretations given to the text by those who came before. He also argued that interpreters are in turn shaped by that which they read, experience, and interpret. In denying that there can be any raw, uninterpreted data to which a method of truth can be applied, or any detached observer unaffected by the exercise of interpretation, he attacked the empiricist point of view on two simultaneous fronts. The texts that are read are shaped by the interpreters’ prior understandings and also shape future understandings in an interaction that, over time, produces some approximation of true understandings.

This is Gadamer’s presentation of the hermeneutical circle, that the tradition and the interpreter of a text interact in such a way that both the tradition of interpretation and the interpreter are changed in the process, presenting a new object of interpretation and a new interpreter for the future. Over time, a broad consensus of interpretation of a work might occur, but it is always changing in its encounter with new questions and situations in history. Each new interpreter will bring unique prejudices–literally “pre-judgments”–to the text, and Gadamer saw this as a positive factor in the interpretive process. Prejudices, in the neutral way in which he uses this term, are simply the preunderstandings about experience that an interpreter carries along in reading a text. Only through the encounter with views in the text that differ from those initial understandings are readers allowed to begin the process of questioning both the text and themselves and developing a richer understanding as a result. A reader’s initial views and the text’s claims merge together into a way of thinking about the world that is more enriching and explanatory than either was alone. This reading, interpreting, and education takes place only within a community and a history that shape the kinds of questions and resolutions to questions that arise.

As Gadamer presents it, truth happens in the action of interpretation rather than by being forced through the use of methodological approaches. It is a historical process that cannot be divorced from the past or from the questions and preunderstandings the interpreter brings to the text. It is a process whose success can be judged only over time and within the tradition of interpretation. Some view Gadamer as too conservative in trusting so much to the role of tradition in his work, arguing on behalf of an approach more like that of Jürgen Habermas, who allows for more possibility that social perspectives and political drives can act to alter interpretations in a distorted or expedient way so that tradition is to be as much suspected as praised. Others find that Gadamer rescues the human sciences from a false attempt to measure their value and truth by the application of rigid methodologies that try to bring natural and human sciences alike into the arena of an empirical logic. In either case he has acquired countless followers among philosophers, social scientists, theologians, literary critics, and other academics and has helped to enliven the tradition of the discussion of theories of interpretation.

Gadamer’s achievement rescued the word “hermeneutics” from obscurity in the indexes of theological tomes and made it a household word among students of the humanities. His work has been particularly influential in literary criticism, especially in studies of the readers’ reception of texts. Ironically, the conservative, scholarly Gadamer has often been cited by politically leftist critics eager to demolish the idea of a value-free, neutral truth. Although his greatest popularity was in the 1980’s, Gadamer’s works continue to be widely studied.

BibliographyDostal, Robert J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. This collection of thirteen essays serves as a introductory overview for those new to Gadamer’s philosophy and as a useful summary for those already acquainted with it.Grondin, Jean. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. An intellectual biography written by one of Gadamer’s former pupils. Draws on interviews with Gadamer and his friends and associates, correspondence, and archival research.Hahn, Lewis Edwin, ed. The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Library of Living Philosophers, vol. 24. Chicago: Open Court Press, 1996. The series in which this volume appears is designed to create a context in which great living philosophers can respond to critical essays on their works. This volume contains twenty-nine essays by leading experts on a variety of aspects of Gadamer’s works and his individual responses. The work also contains an excellent, comprehensive bibliography.Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969. This book was instrumental in introducing hermeneutics to an American audience. The clarity of Palmer’s presentation makes this volume an excellent starting point for someone wanting to understand the basic elements of Gadamer’s theory of interpretation.Risser, James. Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. In this volume, Risser develops an insightful assessment of the single project reflected in the complexity of Gadamer’s thought: making sense of the act of understanding. This book will be most helpful to those readers who have already been introduced to Gadamer’s philosophy.Smith, P. Christopher. Hermeneutics and Human Finitude: Toward a Theory of Ethical Understanding. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991. Taking the philosophical thought of Gadamer on art and the interpretation of texts as a foundation, Smith carefully develops its implications for understanding what ethical knowledge consists of, concluding that ethical choices are best made by interpreting the voice of tradition.Weinsheimer, Joel. Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of “Truth and Method.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. One of the translators of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Weinsheimer presents a well-written, in-depth analysis of Gadamer’s most significant work. This volume is a helpful guide for the general reader and scholar alike.Wright, Kathleen, ed. Festivals of Interpretation: Essays on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. A collection of essays by some of the most renowned European and North American scholars of Gadamer. Examines a wide range of topics, including the relation of hermeneutics to ethics and justice, the application of hermeneutical interpretation to the law, and the relation of poetry to politics.
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