‘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.