Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

The Hermeneutic Productivity of the Familiar

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer draws upon Aristotle’s analogy between an army halting its retreat and the experience of coming to understanding. The halt may be so gradual that an observer can say when individuals within the army stop fleeing, but it’s more difficulty to say when the army as a whole has stopped its flight (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

This situation Gadamer likens to the acquisition of language by children and comments,

In the utilization of the linguistic interpretation of the world that finally comes about [for adults], something of the productivity of our beginnings remains alive. We are all acquainted with this, for instance, in the attempt to translate … that is, we are familiar with the strange, uncomfortable, and tortuous feeling we have so long as we do not have the right word. When we have found the right expression … when we are certain that we have it … then something has come to a “stand” [as the army in Aristotle’s analogy]. Once again we have a halt in the midst of the rush of the foreign language…. What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world…. There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. Misunderstanding and strangeness are not the first factors, so that avoiding misunderstanding can be regarded as the specific task of hermeneutics. Just the reverse is the case. Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enriching of our own experience in the world. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 15)

From the morass of the unfamiliar and strange, humans seem to acquire language or other forms of understanding—to the extent that we do—by means of what are or come to be known quantities, whether as a parent or caregiver, or based on other accumulated prior experience. Our efforts to cope with a “surging sea of stimuli” halt their flight, they come to a stand, once that sea finds its own place—and itself comes to stand—within our understanding of the world, which has quite possibly been broadened for the experience (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

Questions as the Core of Scholarship

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

It is imagination … that is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions, something in which, generally speaking, only he who masters all the methods of his science achieves.

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 12–13).

Without the ability to “see what is questionable,” there is also little chance of breaking “the spell of our own fore-meanings” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 281), or the assumptions about the reality we encounter that, at first brush, seem as naturally indubitable as anything could be.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

Rhetorical “small change”

In his 1963 essay on the “Phenomenological Movement.” H.-G. Gadamer discusses at length Edmund Husserl’s influence in founding the school. In so doing, he recounts an interesting habit of Husserl’s that

In his teaching, whenever he encountered the grand assertions and arguments typical of beginning philosophers, he used to say, “Not always the big bills, gentlemen; small change, small change!” (133)

Gadamer does not wholly underwrite Husserl’s program, but he does helpfully observe that—perhaps as much for theology as for philosophy:

This kind of work produced a peculiar fascination. It had the effect of a purgation, a return to honesty, a liberation from the opaqueness of the opinions, slogans, and battle cries that circulated. (133)

For the balance of Gadamer’s reflections in this essay, see its printing in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 130–81.

Gadamer on time, tradition, and continuity

Photograph of H. G. GadamerStemming from a discussion of Martin Heidegger’s temporal explanation of Dasein, H.-G. Gadamer suggests,

Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged because it separates; it is actually the supportive ground of the course of events in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome. This was, rather, the naive assumption of historicism, namely that we must transpose ourselves into the spirit of the age, think with its ideas and its thoughts, and not with our own, and thus advance toward historical objectivity. In fact the important thing is to recognize temporal distance as a positive and productive condition enabling understanding. It is not a yawning abyss but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which everything handed down presents itself to us. (Truth and Method, 308)

Thus, Gadamer’s suggestion seems to be that the past is, of course, not our own time, but perhaps neither is it the wholly alien thing that thoroughgoing historicism might represent it as being with respect to the present.

Aubrey on theological lexica

Mike Aubrey has provided an excerpt from an essay of his in Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis (Lexham, 2016). The excerpt strives carefully to work out a middle ground that is neither wholly on the side of theological lexica nor on that of James Barr’s critique of them.

Instead, Mike suggests,

If the failure of theological dictionaries was the assumption that words and concepts are identical, then the failure of the structuralist semantics that dominated the field when James Barr wrote his critique was the assumption that words and concepts are dramatically different. If words mean anything at all, then there must be a substantive relationship between them and the concepts (both associative and denotative) they evoke mentally.

Particularly if language is indeed the medium and horizon of human hermeneutic experience (e.g., H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 401–514), then the question of theological (or other conceptual) lexicography would still seem to be quite appropriate to ask, albeit perhaps in a chastened fashion in the continuing wake of Barr’s critique.

For the balance of Mike’s reflections, see his original post.

Truly unmethodical: Gadamer’s “Truth and Method” in English translation

Photograph of H. G. GadamerThis spring, I had the privilege of teaching a seminar in which H.-G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method was the core text through which we worked over the course of the term. The work’s English translation is in its second edition, prepared by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall. This second edition, however, now exists in at least four different printings with four different sets of pagination.

An overview of the printings

In his Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, Merold Westphal has the following helpful note about the earliest two of these printings:

In a reader-unfriendly gesture, Crossroad reissued this second edition in 2004 with different pagination. (70n2)

I haven’t found a 2004 edition issued by “Crossroad.” The first English edition seems to have been issued in 1975 by Sheed and Ward, with the second edition following in 1989 by Crossroad. The second printing of the second edition I’ve only yet found to have been issued by Continuum. The first of these was in 2004. A second Continuum (third overall for the second edition of the English translation) was issued in 2006.

The main difference between the second and third printings (both by Continuum) seems to be the shift from footnotes in 2004 to endnotes in 2006. So, I wonder whether I’m missing a printing somewhere or whether Westphal’s footnote should perhaps read “Continuum reissued this second edition….”

In any case, the pagination shifts induce Westphal to adopt an awkward-but-helpful citation format of “TM x/y”

where x = pagination for the 1989 edition and y = pagination for the 2004 edition. (70n2)

Westphal’s volume came to press itself in 2009. So, the differences in the 2006 printing of Truth and Method may have come to light insufficiently early to have invited yet a third set of pagination to be included in Westphal’s footnotes.

The situation has, however, now been still further compounded with Bloomsbury’s 2013 release of its own edition in the Bloomsbury Revelations series. This fourth printing of the second edition has been entirely re-typeset, producing still a fourth set of pagination that readers and researchers must handle.

Further, this fourth printing appears currently to be the only one readily in print, Continuum having been absorbed by Bloomsbury. The second  and third printings under the Continuum name seem to have been discontinued but are still available in a variety of more-or-less used copies. The two times that I’ve previously taught the seminar that I did again this spring, I’d used the 2006 text. But, students started having an increasingly difficult time obtaining copies in good shape. In addition, not until writing this post did I fully realize some of the shifts involved between the 2004 and 2006 texts themselves. So, for this spring, we shifted over to the 2013 text, hoping to bring things current and make getting one standard text into folks hands a bit easier process.

The 2013 printing and its difficulties

Ahead of obtaining my copy, I looked at some of its reviews on Amazon, and three in particular struck me. One concern was related to this fourth printing’s durability and margin size. Having now worked through and thoroughly marked up the whole text of the 2013 printing, both its durability and margin size seem quite reasonable to me. (On advice I first encountered in Rick Ostrov’s Power Reading, however, I do routinely prepare a book’s spine before I start reading the volume. So, this may account for why the binding may or may not hold up well under different circumstances.)

Of more concern were two reviews that addressed the quality of the reprint itself (1, 2). Surely, though, I thought, these must be overly critical reviewers—who might themselves not be entirely able at judging where errors occur in what is admittedly quite a difficult text to begin with. Unfortunately, having now worked through it, there are several features in the 2013 printing that do make it seem to be a reasonable hypothesis that it was produced by scanning the 2006 text (which also has endnotes, as does the 2013 text), running it through optical character recognition software, and not proofreading it as attentively as would have been helpful to readers before it went to press (cf. Steve S.).

More minor errata

Some of the errata I’ve noted in the 2013 printing are below with the corresponding correction from the 2004 printing. (Yes, despite the fact that it looks like the 2013 printing derives from the 2006 printing, I’ve used the 2004 printing for this discussion as the reference basis for the table and class exchange scenario below.)

On page in the 2013 printing, the text Should read, as found in the 2004 printing
xii Erfah-rung Erfahrung
xv Ver-ständigung Verständigung
107 instead Instead
319 sciences: sciences.
326 techne —but techne—but
361 iilustrates illustrates
361 latter— “experience” latter—”experience”
370 platonic dialectic Platonic dialectic
417 bat but
456 language —differentiates language—differentiates
471 As f see it As I see it
496 grasped, ft grasped. It
518 “feeling [the smart quotation mark curls in the wrong direction] “feeling
520 need only have be need only have be [“need only have been”? a mutual error in the two printings?]
536 Historistnus Historismus
552 —”all [the smart quotation mark curls in the wrong direction] —”all
558 modem modern
559 Bewußitseins Bewußtseins
587 language —seems language—seems

A more serious erratum

Doubtless, this list is not a full one, and some of these errata are fairly nominal. But, in the seminar, we also came across a more serious erratum that we had to spend several minutes sorting out in order to understand what was happening.

In the 2013 printing, we read the following sentence:

In a real community of language, on the other hand, we do not first decide to agree but are always already in agreement, as Aristotle showed.82 (463)

On consulting note 82 to follow up on the Aristotle reference, we found

Cf. pp. 429f. above [and GW, II, 16, 74]

The bracketed portion is a reference to the series of Gadamer’s Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works). Dutifully following the reference to pages 429–30, therefore, we were puzzled to find not a discussion of Aristotle but of Plato and Socrates in Cratylus. After perusing that section for some minutes, I finally pulled the 2004 printing off the shelf, found the corresponding note (446n82), and followed its indication to pages 431–32 in that printing. Lo and behold, there, the discussion is indeed of Aristotle and his Topics in a way that helpfully informs the latter comment quoted above.

In the 2013 printing, however, this discussion doesn’t occur on pages 429–30—per the note in that printing. Rather, it appears on pages 448–49 (!). The endnote reading “Cf. pp. 429f. above [and GW, II, 16, 74]” apparently derives from the 2006 text. In that text, the endnote has the same reading as in the 2013 text, but the discussion of Aristotle and his Topics actually does occur in the 2006 text on pages 429–30.

In addition, the above-noted errata from xii and xv in the 2013 text do not involve hyphenation in the 2004 printing. But, both involve line-breaking hyphens in the 2006 printing that apparently weren’t removed when the formatting changed for the 2013 text and these terms no longer fell at the ends of lines.


In sum, Gadamer’s Truth and Method is a seminal text for contemporary reflection on hermeneutics. It is also, unquestionably, a difficult text through which to work. (For an introduction and overview, see the very good walk-through in this post.) English speakers can surely be grateful for English editions of the work, but the publication history of this text in English and what seem to be the errata in the most up-to-date English printing mean that—at least for the present—there are a few additional matters to be noted and navigated as readers work through and with this tome.

An introduction to Gadamer

St. Johns Nottingham has a helpful introduction to the life and philosophy of H.-G. Gadamer. In the video, Jessica Frazier sets the context of Gadamer’s early life, discusses some of the major themes in Truth and Method, and outlines interaction with Gadamer’s thought by others like Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.

In the (e)mail: Rodríguez and Thiessen, “The So-called Jew”

In addition to Boccaccini and Segovia’s Paul the Jew, inbox recently saw the arrival from Fortress Press of a review copy of Rafael Rodríguez and Matthew Thiessen’s edited volume The So-Called Jew in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (2016). According to the book’s blurb:

Decades ago, Werner G. Kümmel described the historical problem of Romans as its “double character”: concerned with issues of Torah and the destiny of Israel, the letter is explicitly addressed not to Jews but to Gentiles. At stake in the numerous answers given to that question is nothing less than the purpose of Paul’s most important letter. In The So-Called Jew in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, nine Pauline scholars focus their attention on the rhetoric of diatribe and characterization in the opening chapters of the letter, asking what Paul means by the “so-called Jew” in Romans 2 and where else in the letter’s argumentation that figure appears or is implied. Each component of Paul’s argument is closely examined with particular attention to the theological problems that arise in each.

I’m looking forward to working through the text and reviewing it for the Stone-Campbell Journal.

I recently also had the privilege of reviewing Rafael’s prior If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Wipf & Stock, 2014). I very much appreciate the argument that Rafael brings out in that volume. Rafael has very kindly received the review, though he rightly notes some lingering questions that tend to make me lean in a bit different direction. But, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what in the new Fortress volume may speak to those or other related matters. As H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

We say we “conduct” a conversation, but the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather, it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less leaders of it than the led. (Truth and Method, 401; underlining added)

Gadamer on the Führerprinzip

In a note in his Truth and Method, H.-G. Gadamer comments,

The notorious statement, “The party (or the Leader) is always right” is not wrong because it claims that a certain leadership is superior, but because it serves to shield the leadership, by a dictatorial decree, from any criticism that might be true. (389n22)

That is, at least from Gadamer’s viewpoint, the slogan he quotes is not so much a statement of fact, but a statement of what must necessarily be articulated as a statement of fact, despite any possible indications to the contrary.

Cross-file under #whyitsgoodtoreadthefootnotes