Revolution according to Gadamer

‘The modern Enlightenment is abstract and revolutionary.’ These words can be read in the part of Truth and Method (1960) which my colleague and I selected for our reader ‘Philosophy of Science for the Social Sciences’ – the massive course which has recently hindered me from writing my blog as frequently as I am used to. In the pages in his section on ‘prejudices as conditions of understanding’ Hans-Georg Gadamer revalues the ideas of tradition and authority that seemed to be rejected from the time Immanuel Kant wrote his famous essay What is Enlightenment? There Kant had argued that everyone who can be understood to be an adult (apart from some groups that rather stay dependent, like women) should be capable to think for himself. If he refrains from doing so he is cowardly and lazy, leaving the thinking to others, and staying in a condition of dependency that is self-willed. Although Kant left public matters largely under the reign of public power (obedience being necessary to keep the state functioning) – anyone (well, all white males of a certain level of education), could think and say anything in the realm of learning, which was to be a free haven amidst the potentially oppressive structures of power. Think for your self, accept no authority, let tradition not influence your thought. These ideas stemmed of course from Descartes, among others, who had already pointed out that every human being has a natural capacity to think, and that abstracting from tradition could lead you to the most clear and certain ideas.

Gadamer breaks with this fashion of Enlightenment ideas. The importance of his approach can hardly be overrated. He contributed not only by criticizing Enlightenment rigor, thereby preceding a multiplicity of critiques that came to the fore from the eighties of the twentieth century on (among whom feminist, postmodernist, and anti-racist ones are the obvious ones to mention), but, like these later critiques, he aimed to restore the lost relationship between ethics and politics. The cited phrase is namely preceded by this remark: ‘What makes classical ethics superior to modern moral philosophy is that it grounds the transition from ethics to “politics”, the art of right legislation, on the indispensability of tradition.’ For Gadamer, hermeneutics is an ethical art. Originally hermeneutics was developed in law, to apply the general rules of law to specific cases. According to Gadamer the good judge, who interprets the law, is not just applying it, but finding out what is really just. Similarly, the lawmakers, the politicians, should keep their eye on what is just and fair – thereby doing the same kind of ethical hermeneutics. Interpreting those higher values and creating rules that are able to embody them. Tradition, understood rightly, should be the guide in this process.

In modern times the relationship between ethics and politics has been cut. Politics came to be understood as the game of power, and its good to be judged by measuring the sustainability of power. An oppressive government will lead to its own end by stimulating the forces of revolution, a modernist thinker like Spinoza thought. Ethics on the other hand came to be seen as another game, a game between individuals searching for ways to pursue their own happiness while living together in the best possible way. Both domains became revolutionary in the sense, that they are deemed to create their own rules anew all the time. The so-called state of nature is no historical state, but a timeless abstraction, a precondition for being able to play the games.

This development made the good in human interaction lose its rationality. What was understood as reason, the natural processes of the natural revolutionary, a-temporal, mind, was in fact its opposite. For reason in human affairs can only substantiate, according to Gadamer, in the dialogue of actual humans, deciding how they will take up the concretizations of the good as they are handed down to them through tradition. ‘Preservation is as much a freely chosen action as are revolution and renewal.’ And ‘in ages of revolution far more of the old is preserved in the supposed transformation of everything than anyone knows.’ One can summarize his deep insight as follows: a good revolution is no different from a good tradition, as both are renewal of the old, as new generations in new circumstances, have to assess the old and adapt it to their needs. Revolution as the belief in a radical new beginning is nonsense, as is the belief of conservatives that everything can stay the same. This view implies, and that is the most important to me, that ethics is impossible without politics, and vice versa, as one is the translation of the other. Politics should have its eye on the good, and moral philosophy on the conditions to realize it in actual societies. These thoughts have been taken up and developed later by such thinkers as Joan Tronto and Jacques Derrida, some of my philosophers of choice for this reason.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) is famous because of his 1960 classic Truth and Method.

  1. onesis said:

    Great to see someone exploring Gadamer, and hermeneutics, in a philosophy of science course. Great to see the link being established between ethics and science. Great to be able to see them come into focus at the same time, and not being treated as separate disciplines.

  2. Lee said:

    Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I doubt there has ever been a time in the history of human civilization when politics was not about power. Or if there ever has been, it didn’t last long.

    • Hi Lee, of course politics is about power. There is a difference if it is seen to be only about power (Macchiavelli) or also about realising a good society on earth. I think The Macchiavellian view is a misrepresentation, for it cannot explain how we ever got laws that have justice and fairness for their aim. I think politics is a mixed business, mixing ideals and knowledge about the power game. Although I fear that I can not convince the cynic with my opinion 😉

      • Lee said:

        I would say that politics is a necessary evil. It is necessary because the human spirit has been corrupted by self-interest and a desire for power, necessitating a rule of law to check the excesses of crime and the oppression of one individual or group by another. But it is evil because behind everything government does is the use, or threat, of violent force if any individual or group violates its will. The evil of government is made necessary by human selfishness, greed, and striving for power over others. However, government is also an irresistible magnet for precisely the people who desire power over others, and who believe that force is justified in imposing their particular idea of what is good and right upon others. So although it does serve as a check upon crime and oppression, in the end it cannot be any better than the general level of the people who comprise the society it governs. If they are corrupt, it, too, will be corrupt. So although politics and government is a necessary evil for societies composed at least partially of corrupted human beings, it cannot solve the problem of human evil. That is a spiritual issue, not a political one.

  3. onesis said:

    It’s a discussion worth having. Politics (and the abuses that are part of it) is much more than being about government of course. Abuses of power can happen anywhere. What Gadamer does, is position (re)thinking at the centre of power, as it occurs within a tradition, so that those who act with authority become answerable for whatever actions are being promoted. This is not about thinking and thinkers taking control, as Karl Popper quite mistakenly interpreted Plato as saying, but the critical use of thinking being made central to any exercise of power. All this is as much relevant to science, or to religion, or to art, as it is to government. So hermeneutics is not just the handing down of a tradition more or less intact. Taken up philosophically, as Gadamer does, it is the critical reappropriation of that tradition at every step, answerable to questions posed by ethics.

  4. If we could make “the critical use of thinking … central to any exercise of power” in our daily actions, it would improve our lives, and our societies. We must be concerned with “politically oppressive powers” and government control, but do we look at ourselves with the same scrutiny? I agree that politics as practiced by each of us and philosophy need to be linked, and re-linked, continuously monitored and renewed. This is a difficult but not impossible task. It would be a kind of spiritual politics, I suppose, as defined by Gadamer.

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