On Returning to Gadamer

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of a volume of essays by the late German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. My research has become increasingly oriented around questions of philosophical historiography, so reviewing the collection—organized around the topic of the “philosophy of history”—seemed like a good excuse to work through Gadamer’s views of the relation between philosophy and history. Though I have my reservations about how Gadamer translates to our own situation today (see the review if you are at all interested), he was one of the major twentieth-century figures to insist that philosophy has an intimate relation to its past, arguing that it unfolds upon a backdrop of history and tradition. In this way, his work opposes ahistorical visions of philosophy, and—in my opinion—provides helpful lessons for philosophers and historians of philosophy alike.

Reviewing the collection also gave me a chance to get back in touch with some of my erstwhile philosophical interests. I spent a great deal of time with Gadamer’s work as an undergraduate at Boston College (where Gadamer had held visiting posts from 1974-86), and I wrote a thesis on his interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues. Back then, I was interested in Gadamer’s emphasis on understanding and his conception of questions as tools for generating dialogue. I became concerned with different things as time went on, however, and until this year had given little thought to my earlier interest in Gadamer.

In writing the review, I made a point of looking into Gadamer’s views on Leibniz (who had not really been an interest of mine as an undergrad). The Philosopher of Hannover doesn’t really figure extensively in Gadamer’s corpus, but he does occasionally pop up in notable ways. For instance, Gadamer assumed the rectorship of the University of Leipzig in 1946, 300 years after Leibniz had been born there in 1646. Aware of the anniversary, Gadamer devoted his address to Leibniz. This piece — available in German in Volume 10 of Gadamer’s Gesammelte Werke — may not shed great light on the content of Leibniz’s philosophy from our present standpoint, but it does provide a window into how Gadamer, writing in the immediate aftermath the Second World War, thought of Leibniz’s legacy within the history of German philosophy. Gadamer suggests that while we might perceive the Leibnizian preestablished harmony and monadology as though they are philosophical fairy-tales (and hence it is no surprise that he became overshadowed by later philosophers like Kant), they served admirably as contemporary solutions to the Cartesian mind-body problem. Gadamer also argues that in Leibniz we can recognize several intellectual currents that became prominent through the subsequent classical period of German Philosophy including the connections between force and life, rationalism, and a romantic vision of the unconscious.

More significant for me, however, was the discovery of a couple of later passages revealing connections that Gadamer himself drew between his hermeneutic project and Leibniz’s attempt to reconcile divergent philosophical viewpoints. I am very much interested in the question of what it means to be a Leibnizian today, and, to my mind, the answer has always been less about defending a specific metaphysical doctrine—say the monadology—and more about how to update Leibniz’s project of philosophical reconciliation. For Leibniz, insofar as each philosophical perspective occupies its own vantage point on the truth, its insights deserve a place within a completed system of philosophy. I admit that I was taken a bit off guard when I stumbled upon Gadamer matter-of-factly acknowledging his kinship with Leibniz, indicating that one way to understand his own hermeneutic project—along with its emphasis on the production of mutual understanding through dialogue—is as a response to the same philosophical and dialogical problems faced by Leibniz three centuries prior.

For instance, here is Gadamer in an autobiographical essay composed in 1977 discussing his decision to write his magnum opus Truth and Method:

The fact that along with my passionate engagement as a teacher I came to write a large book is due to a natural need I felt to ponder how the various paths of philosophizing which I retraced in my teaching could be made genuinely relevant to today by starting from the current philosophical situation. To arrange them into a historical process that is constructed in an a priori way (à la Hegel) seemed to me just as unsatisfactory as the relativistic neutrality of historicism. I agree with Leibniz, who once said that he himself approved of nearly all he read. But in contrast with that great thinker, the stimulus of this experience did not lead me to feel I must create one great synthesis, as he did. Indeed, I began asking myself whether philosophy could still be placed under the rubric of such a synthetic task at all. Indeed, for the continuation of hermeneutical experiences, must not philosophy hold itself radically open, captivated by what remains always evident to it, and use its powers to oppose all redarkening of what it has seen? Philosophy is enlightenment, but precisely also enlightenment with regard to its own dogmatism. (“Autobiographical Reflections.” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 3-38. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007. 20, emphasis added)

Here Gadamer claims to have started in the same place as Leibniz, namely as occupying a position of approval with respect to [nearly all] that which is said by others. Though Gadamer claims his path wound up diverging from Leibniz—instead of synthesizing everything that had come before, maintaining a connection to perennial philosophical questions while resisting a transformation into dogma—his affirmation of Leibniz’s standpoint of [near] universal approbation is striking.

More revealing are these comments, from a 1996 German TV broadcast, quoted in Jean Grondin’s 2003 biography. Reflecting on his 1946 Rectoral Address, Gadamer tells us:

For some time I was a philosophy professor at Leipzig. And of course after the war the situation was such that we wanted to commemorate the great son of Leipzig, Leibniz… And I gave a talk in the University Chapel on the significance of Leibniz for us Europeans and for science throughout the world. For if we ask what authority we can rely on in our world—where, on the one hand, an undreamed-of progress in natural science dominates everything, and on the other a highly diverse religious, philosophical, and moral world is spread our over the whole globe—then at some point we will always come back to Leibniz. This is, as it were, the point to which we must return if we really want to do justice to recent centuries in their special fruitfulness and also their uniqueness. At any rate, the figure of Leibniz was completely unusual in this respect. We think, and thought in 1945 and ’46, after the endless waste that Hitler’s insane war brought upon us, that the time reminded us of the time after the Thirty Years War, when Leibniz first began the reconstruction of European culture in the middle of Europe… I would say there is really no more hermeneutic exemplar in the history of philosophy that I know of than Leibniz, who himself maintained the inherent connection and reciprocal interrelatedness of alternating viewpoints and alternating perspectives ultimately for the structure of truth itself. (Quoted in Grondin, Jean. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002. 249-50, emphasis added)

There is quite a bit going on in these comments, and its unclear to me what to make of, say, the parallel Gadamer draws between reconstructions following the devastations of 1648 and 1946 (and we can certainly be wary of the image of European culture—and, for that matter, Leibniz’s role in reconstructing it—with which Gadamer is operating). What I want to note, however, is that Gadamer goes even further towards associating his own project with that of Leibniz, by identifying Leibniz as a great exemplar of the hermeneutical approach. I am still trying to decide what to make of this discovery, but one lesson seems to be that there has been more continuity in my interests than I realized, and that continuity is specifically oriented around the themes of mutual understanding and the reconciliation of prima facie opposed viewpoints. More importantly, however, if we take the liberty of reinterpreting Gadamer’s judgment of Leibniz from our own vantage point, we find one candidate for answering the question of what it might mean to be a Leibnizian today. That is to say that we may find, in the author of Truth and Method, a Leibnizian exemplar in the [recent] history of philosophy.

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