Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography
by jean grondin
translated by woel weinsheimer
yale university press, 512 pages, $35
It is reasonable to be dubious about biographies of philosophers, even when they are good. For what, after all, is the life of a philosopher? How much a novelist lived the events he or she wrote about (did Dostoevsky know a Zosima?) seems a natural point of curiosity, irrelevant though it may be to the novels. But could you wonder that about a philosopher? Philosophy concerns ideas, and do ideas have an obscure connection to everyday life? What, for example, can the life of the fellow with the wool ties and Teutonic humor tell us about what was most vital and central to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the German philosopher who died almost two years ago, on March 14, 2002, at the remarkable age of 102. As Gadamer himself noted, philosophers “are thinkers and their identity is to be found in the continuity of their thought”—“biography” is thus “marginal.”
Nevertheless, readers of Gadamer might hesitate here. Gadamer himself described his introduction to ideas as a young man in the following terms: “It was ‘life-philosophy,’ above all, . . . that was taking hold of our whole feeling for life.” He was referring to the “chasm” that had opened up in the nineteenth century between “academic” philosophy and “worldly” philosophy, meaning a thinking that butted into life—the legacy of Pascal, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. Forty years later, his mature philosophy would join that tradition, as philosophy with a special connection to life.
Gadamer dubbed his work “philosophical hermeneutics” to distinguish it from hermeneutics proper: that is, biblical exegesis and, in a broader sense, interpretation itself (as opposed to reflection upon it). But philosophy was not its point; philosophy was its means. The point was life, always the affair at which Gadamer’s hermeneutics was aimed. Though you cannot gather it from his academic style, life is the stage for Gadamer’s work the way life looms behind the music of Gustav Mahler (of whom Gadamer was fond). A Mahler symphony seems to want to guide you through birth, death, joy, melancholy, and illness in an altered frame of mind. Gadamer doesn’t offer that guidance: only the voice of Being can give it. But you have to hear that voice, and Gadamer wants to help you to hear it. “What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world. I call this experience hermeneutical.” But there has been “a fateful change in the relationship of humans to the world.” We have become masters. “We are not at all ready to hear things in their own being.” That deafness means we cannot find our way home; it means a fundamental “homelessness.” Awakening us to the voice of Being was the issue of all Gadamer’s work.
It is little wonder, then, that philosophy needed a new approach for such a project. Philosophy mired in “the bog of historicism,” or “stranded in the shallows of epistemology,” or eddying “in the backwater of logic” held no attraction for Gadamer. Philosophy as taught, he thought, had long ago been “forced out of the context of teaching and living”—which is to say, teaching for living, philosophy understood as “a life that poses the questions of the true and the good.” That was the real issue: finding “a life to which one can say ‘yes.’”
This issue could well be called the hermeneutic life, understood as a life that gives hermeneutics its proper place. Hermeneutics is “a mode of being”—a uniquely important form of experience without which we know nothing. Hermeneutics is, as theologian Fred Lawrence has put it, “a being-present-to-the-world constituted by meaning”—provided one stresses that Gadamer considered this to be “more than a mere manifestation of meaning.” It is not just an increase in sense (sheer folly makes perfect sense, which is part of its attraction); it is entering into the presence of Being itself.
What kind of life does hermeneutics make possible? Gadamer never says—a fact that makes his own life a matter of some curiosity. Did he live the life he wished others to discover? Could one take Gadamer’s life as an object lesson in hermeneutics?
Some people have done just that. In his review of Jean Grondin’s recently translated biography of Gadamer, historian of philosophy Richard Wolin asked “how hermeneutics, as personified by Gadamer, fares under real-world conditions.” His conclusion was curt: “Those who view Grondin’s biography as a conte morale about how hermeneutics functions in times of duress are surely in for a major letdown.” What kind of life is the hermeneutic life? A “horrible life,” says Wolin.
For Wolin, hermeneutics is “a moral and political failure,” for in the Nazi years it failed to help Gadamer make “ethically informed choices.” Wolin adds Gadamer’s name to the list of such compromised thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Gadamer’s teacher, and Paul de Man, for twice assuming posts vacated by dismissed Jewish colleagues. The question is fair and the issues real: some moments of Gadamer’s career would make anyone uneasy (was it really necessary to lecture on J. G. Herder in occupied Paris, telling captured French officers how “the German concept of the people—in contrast to the democratic slogans of the West—proves to have the power to create a new political and social order in an altered present”?). But there is spongy thinking behind Wolin’s tough conclusion.
Take the Herder incident—what Wolin calls, “undoubtedly, Gadamer’s greatest compromise with the Nazi regime.” Anyone who reads the original version of Gadamer’s lecture cannot miss its distinctive ambiguity. A defense of Herder’s idea of the German Volk? Yes, but that involves contrasting the people with the state. Gadamer notes “the dangers the state machine represents for life in general,” with its “suffocating soullessness” and its “false appearance of life,” and he heads off any “false hubris” about “one’s own present” (“the idea of a favored people [Lieblingsvolk]” is “untenable”). Wolin says that this simply played into Nazi ideology (which “never celebrated the idea of the ‘state’”), but what of it? Everyone knew the presence of the state—anyone marked for pickup in the dead of night knew it wasn’t the people at the door. Anyone can see that Gadamer was cleverly shredding—while on state business—the absurd pretense that the Nazi state was the people.
But simplicity mars even Wolin’s thinking on the pivotal issue of compliance. In its full complexity, the question is not: Did Gadamer do anything that could be said to accommodate the Nazis? It is: Would it be better to remain pure, to protest and relinquish one’s professorship, so that the university could fill up with real poison? Or, instead, sign the occasional declaration of allegiance to the regime and attend the odd reeducation camp so that one could go on teaching students real philosophy? Which would be right if you believed, as Gadamer did, that the decline of university education was one of the things that had made “possible” the “chaos of National Socialism”? There is ethical substance in both answers, it seems to me. It never appears to dawn on Wolin that career—the objective of continuing to teach—could have any but a selfish meaning. That is a very odd notion of teaching.
Grondin’s book is essentially a narrative of academic life and intellectual contacts. On the question of fascism, however, the facts of Gadamer’s career under the Nazis (covered by a quarter of the book) do not lead us to any dramatic or even noteworthy conclusions. At the same time, these details of career and connections tell us nothing at all about the hermeneutic life.
Grondin has done substantial archival work to settle what the book’s jacket calls “the facts of Gadamer’s life”: upbringing, schooling, teachers, degrees, appointments, major publications, and other signal events (Gadamer’s early illness, his two marriages, his arrest by East German police). Providing a wealth of information on the development of hermeneutic themes and intellectual parallels with thinkers Gadamer knew, it is a richly documented biography (though the typo in the opening sentence of chapter one, which gets Gadamer’s birthday wrong, inspires doubts about precision). All of this information is not without a certain interest, but even someone like myself, unusually interested in the man, closes this book reflecting on Gadamer’s epigraph to his own academic memoir of 1977, Philosophical Apprenticeships: “De nobis ipsis silemus”—about oneself one must keep silent. Perhaps there was more to that than just modesty.
Gadamer always counted the determination of sources and “the cataloguing of historical facts” of comparatively little importance. “Being well-informed,” he said, “is not the same thing as being substantial.” In this he was in full agreement with Heidegger, who disparaged “those who understand something only when they have situated it among historical influences, the pseudo-understanding of officious curiosity, that is, the avoidance of what is decisively important.” These words, cited by Grondin himself, resonate uncomfortably with this biography.
Was Grondin’s instinct sound? Is a genetic history of ideas a sure road to hermeneutics, as a form of life-philosophy? “The private sphere,” he decided, “will remain excluded here insofar as it has no significance for the intellectual aspects [of] Gadamer’s biography.” One can learn much from this story of early development and “influential figures” that contributes to understanding Gadamer’s work. (It seems clear, for instance, that the tension between Gadamer’s view of phronesis [prudence] and the Thomistic view is due to the influence of Heidegger, who first made this concept meaningful to Gadamer in lectures of the 1920s.) But can “the biographical,” conceived as a narrative of ideas, really give us a genuine “entry point to Gadamer’s hermeneutics”—to an understanding Gadamer would call “substantial”?
Grondin has done an excellent job with a standard biography. It is just that in this case a standard biography—the sort you could write about almost any philosopher (Habermas or Derrida or Dr. Dimbulb)—seems a missed opportunity. Biography should be the perfect occasion to take account of the implicit connection between the hermeneutic life and the life Gadamer lived. A life in earshot of Being: that is the story you secretly long for when you think of a “life” of the founder of philosophical hermeneutics.
Of course, that would be a lot to ask for, given the serious gap between hermeneutics and philosophy as practiced and taught today—the breach between the Gadamer who told us that philosophy is “the conversation of the soul with itself” and the Gadamer the academy is equipped to bring us. You get a fair measure of that trouble (a veritable deafness to Gadamer) when you hear still-common judgments about Truth and Method, his masterwork. “Never systematically clarified in terms of a fully developed concept of truth.” Well, perhaps that’s because, according to Gadamer, truth is not something we weigh in theories. “The possession of criteria” is not “more important than truth,” he wrote. “Knowing is a direct intuition,” a matter of “divine grace.” Truth, for Gadamer, is a word spoken to us by Being. And if that is the message, how do you imagine its messenger fares in the academy?
Gadamer’s current place in philosophy depends very largely on the effort to smooth his work into continuity with a thinking he gave up on early. It is not “sterile epistemological problems” that matter but rather “the heritage of Socrates,” the encounter with the good. Can philosophy truly have repudiated that? Look at it in a Kierkegaardian way. “Wherever God is present,” wrote Kierkegaard, “progress will be recognizable by mounting demands, by the cause becoming harder. On the other hand, the human way is always recognizable by matters being made easier; and that is called progress.” On the one hand you have challenge, Socrates, things becoming harder; on the other, modern philosophy and the hunt for easily consumed theories of truth.
Kierkegaard was saying that if a philosophy bears a message fit to assist in building the Kingdom of God, then something in that message will hurt the heads or abrade the sensitivities of ordinarily sinful people—folks like us. An easier way of understanding the given philosopher (Socrates or Gadamer) will always be available—other ways of thinking that feel comfortable will practically beg to include him, and the philosophy will be shoehorned into them. Yet nothing about this will seem lax or forced, since these “positive” interpretations will rapidly accumulate into whole schools of thought. We will have resounding agreement about what the philosophy says, pretty much proving that the riches of the thinker have been expertly reaped. Yet they will not have been, for to reap them would be hard.
Gadamer is telling us something hard, something that can indeed assist in building the Kingdom of God. But you won’t hear it in what the experts tell you about Gadamer’s greatness—for instance (to sample recent tributes), that Gadamer has revealed “the structure of hermeneutic understanding” and “described the way in which human beings come to terms with themselves.” Since Gadamer’s thought stresses conversation, philosophers are inclined to present him as the great theorist of that phenomenon—in effect, a theorist of the everyday, the comfortable (since we know how to converse and do it all the time). They tell us that when Gadamer writes, “I sought to ground the linguisticality of our orientation to the world in conversation,” he is saying we are linguistic to the bone and construct our world by talking about everything around us (a self-image with which we rest easy, says Kierkegaard). Or they tell us that Gadamer emphasizes dialogue to single it out as the great paradigm of all properly human relations (and, again, no philosophy is more acceptable to us than the theoretical coming-together of the human race). All of this may be Gadamer’s greatness for those crowding Kierkegaard’s “human” highway, but where in these genteel formulas is the Gadamer I know?
Where is the hammer that Gadamer has so painstakingly fashioned: that perfect tool for cracking the walls that shut out the truth? That is hermeneutics: it frees me to live, whereas the hermeneutics of the academy is no tool at all. The “accomplishment of Gadamer’s major opus, Truth and Method,” is not that it is “the Bible of modern-day hermeneutics.” Gadamer’s accomplishment has everything to do with Kierkegaard’s “mounting demands.”
Truth and Method is “one of the great philosophical works of the twentieth century” because it leads us where the modern mind—“which as a matter of fact is in a hopeless impasse,” notes Gadamer—will not go, resists going with every thought, yet absolutely needs to go.
What is it that the modern head is not prepared to hear? It is that Being is our partner. Being is speaking to us. And Being will lead us home. Ever since the publication of Truth and Method in 1960, that is exactly what Gadamer has been saying. And, for perfectly obvious reasons, that has meant the quiet refurbishment of hermeneutics by contemporary philosophy, for philosophy is precisely a specialty that stops short of all intimations of mystical relation. “If you want that Gadamer,” it says, “take a right turn to the theology department.” But Truth and Method opens with a verse of Rilke on the “eternal partner” and “the great bridge-building of God” for good reason: “establishing the ontological background of the hermeneutical experience of the world” was the work’s ultimate objective. Gadamer was telling us about the ever-present communication of Being—and he was doing it as a philosopher, for he was neither a theologian nor even a Christian.
That is one of the things we are indebted to Grondin for clarifying. Is Gadamer’s philosophy a disguised Christianity? Hardly—after reading Grondin the answer couldn’t be clearer. Though Gadamer often presented himself as a Protestant and kept in touch with theology (he followed the Marburg theological controversies and was a fifteen-year veteran of Rudolf Bultmann’s private reading circle), he put it bluntly: “I have no religious faith at all”—though he added, “I always say that with a certain amount of regret.” He believed his chances for faith had been hurt by his father, the early loss of his mother, the air of unbelief in the Church of his youth, even the “terrible” liturgy and the modernized music (pitfalls he counted “inherent in Protestantism”). He professed what Plato called “the divine,” joking that Catholicism favored Aristotle because Plato was too spiritual for it. Plato’s “divine” may seem like nothing—a philosopher’s god—but the more you know about Gadamer’s sense of Being, the closer it brings you to your own God.
Most of the standard readings of Gadamer ignore the emphasis on the outcome of hermeneutics: the personal encounter with the voice of Being. Language is the route of “a return to the whole,” “an experience of the whole and of ourselves in the whole.” “It is through the Word that we overcome the abysmal ignorance about ourselves in which we live.” “The light that causes everything to emerge in such a way that it is evident and comprehensible is the light of the word.”
The task of philosophical hermeneutics was simple: to clear the mind of intellectual barriers to that light, constituted by habitual modern concerns like historical difference, aestheticism, the perfectibility of procedures. The history of thinking has only weakened our grasp of reality, which involves understanding our intimate relation with Being. Philosophy has only turned our backs to Being; so much for Plato’s Cave. What is Being in a land lulled by the blue flicker of TV screens?
According to Gadamer, in philosophy we are talking about “the greatest of questions”—we are talking about “the question of ‘Being.’” And this is a question that Being asks us. Whether it is called “nous or God,” he writes, “either way it is ultimately what lies utterly outside us” that is our signpost in living. To live, we must trust in “the way of complete self-donation to what is outside, in which the seeker nevertheless finds himself.”
The religious dimension of that message is unmistakable, and hardly an accident: Gadamer said that we have to understand understanding “in terms of religious experience.” All our “false paths of human self-understanding reach their true end only through divine grace.” When we truly understand something, what occurs is “a ‘taking part’ in something, a participation that more closely resembles what takes place . . . in the believer who is faced with a religious message.” As if to turn any still-listening philosopher against him, Gadamer identified the paradigm of understanding with “the mystical submersion of Christians.”
Being is our conversation partner and language is its voice. In saying so, Gadamer wants us to accept something that makes no sense to the modern mind. Even Grondin, who has read Gadamer deeply (he is the French translator of Truth and Method), has written that in Gadamer’s work the word “‘ontological’ is consistently used as a synonym for ‘philosophical’ and ‘universal.’” (What, then, does Gadamer mean by “universal ontological significance”?) But Truth and Method moves steadily forward, past the preoccupation with the humanities, “horizons,” the “historical and aesthetic consciousness,” past conversation and language to its ultimate task, which is breaking down the “ontological prejudice” that modernity has housed in a thousand institutions. How will you grasp what Gadamer is saying if you are resolutely unprepared (as most philosophers are) to acknowledge the ontological mystery of a Being that speaks directly to us—that is, to our troubles, our innermost issues of identity and value?
It is worth the risk of isolating the gist of that message: God’s answer to our deepest questions is before us. Or call it Being, if you prefer. Being is speaking to us—in effect, it hears our most intimate questions and holds out the answer. The questions that wring us with indecision, the agonizing dilemmas that we are helpless to resolve—in the hermeneutic life, these are questions that may be laid before Being.
Does a religious person need Gadamer to tell us that? Certainly not. But a religious person needs him as much as the secular person, because the modern Protestant or Catholic or Jew has plenty of trouble hearing God’s voice. Gadamer alluded to “analogies” between the hermeneutic stance and prayer, but hermeneutics has something to teach us about prayer. Understanding Gadamer reveals how modern thinking has infiltrated even the notion of dialogue with God. In prayer God answers our questions, we are sure, but how does He do that? How does God speak to us? If I answer, “In Scripture,” I merely respect modern boundaries. If I think of answered prayer as a message telegraphed direct to my heart, if I have no sense of the breadth of God, the ways in which God talks to me, then I have only a rudimentary sense of prayer, for, as Gadamer shows, God is talking to me all the time and I don’t seem to know it. While the modern secular person dismisses Being altogether, the modern religious person meets Being only on consecrated ground: it is all deafness to Being, one way or the other.
Gadamer is one of the great philosophers of our age because, from the desiccation of the twentieth century, employing the resources of secular philosophy (still rhetorically rich), he could find a way to teach us how to hear the voice—how to converse with God, how to live in a world in which what is has asked us a question and awaits our reply. The ideas are essential, to be sure, but they are only a preliminary to the hermeneutic life.
Properly recombined, all the Gadamerian theses that philosophers single out for attention point toward a life in conversation with Being. Take language. To see language as “the element in which we live,” or to say that our understanding of the world is “language-bound”—or, in his most famous formula, that “Being that can be understood is language”—does not mean simply that language is a medium in which we can connect with anything. It means that “in language the world itself presents itself.” Language has put us in conversation with Being, and in such a way that we can receive the guidance to live fully.
Language is “outside us”; a word has already been spoken to us by Being. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In this statement, the prologue to the Gospel of John, Gadamer discovered “an idea that is not Greek and does more justice [than Greek ideas] to the being of language.” We are talking here about the “miracle of language,” the miracle of a presence that “asserts its own truth in being understood.” We are talking about the “great experience in which what is reveals itself.”
Gadamer stands out among philosophers for suggesting that the conversation partner with whom truth emerges is not necessarily another person. What speaks to us is not just a he or a she but also a book or a poem, and not just a book or a poem but the world around us—Being itself, through the poem. Gadamer singles out human dialogue only by way of analogy—because that is the paradigm we know best, the model that will teach us our proper relation to the world. “Whatever says something to us is like a person who says something.” Gadamer wants us to hear “the dialogue that things carry on with us,” see “the symbolic character that, hermeneutically regarded, belongs to all beings.” In this, three Gadamerian themes are central: finitude, openness, and application.
Finitude is disability, “the distinguishing feature of being human,” the consequence of “a reality that limits and exceeds the omnipotence of reflection.” “All human self-understanding is determined,” says Gadamer, “by its inadequacy.” “The Delphic command ‘Know thyself’ meant, ‘Know that you are a man and no god,’” an insight that “stands as a warning before all illusions of mastery and domination.” We must act when we do not know how to act.
Which is to say—now the second theme—we stand open to the directive that lies in what has been said to us. Openness, or placing oneself in the hands of otherness, is another “Kierkegaardian motif,” recalled Gadamer, that “guided me from the beginning. According to Kierkegaard, it is the other who breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand.”
But openness has a dual quality. Before it is receptivity to the message in a text, it is receptivity to texts as such—to the presence of the word all around us. We must first be open to the word, to the presence of language in dialogue, poetry, and experience. When Gadamer stressed “the linguisticality of all understanding” he was extending hermeneutics beyond its traditional purview (works, art, people) to all otherness: to all that can address us through language, all that has the power to speak in conceptual form.
Openness is often misunderstood. It is not weakness, doing as one is told—what Wolin labeled “Gadamer’s ethical ‘conventionalism’: the view that, instead of making waves, we should follow the rules and procedures of the existing social order.” To be open is to hear—first, to hear that a word has been spoken; second, to hear what was said in it. We submit not to the dictate in but simply to the saying of what is said to us. We listen to all the words, suspending any dampening caveats about the character, intelligence, or reality of the “speaker.”
But when Gadamer says that “we have the ability to open ourselves to the superior claim” of a conversation partner, he means that we can refuse to engage that ability—like a child who won’t read the words before him, though he can. (Nothing is easier than ease, says Kierkegaard). “The central problem of hermeneutics” as an art of life is to “let something be said to us,” doing the work of letting things speak. “We might well say that learning how to do this properly is a never-ending task laid upon each of us.” Gadamer calls it the “task of application.”
Application has to do with the way a message applies to our own lives. This is not a procedural move, something we do at some designated moment by “comparing the message to our situation.” It is a symptom, as it were, of being open; following the words is also hearing the way they point to me (as often they will). “The way the interpreter belongs to his text is like the way the point from which we are to view a picture belongs to its perspective. It is not a matter of looking for this viewpoint and adopting it as one’s standpoint. The interpreter . . . finds his point of view already given” in the words that are heard.
Discovering the word in our midst, following the words said, acknowledging how they point at you—anyone who achieves this “fundamental sort of openness” will occasionally find himself redirected by that experience alone. The encounter changes one’s mind: “What is meaningful passes into one’s own thinking on the subject.” The process, says Gadamer, “is more a passion than an action.” The new way of seeing “presses itself on us” as we listen. “We can no longer avoid it and persist in our accustomed opinion.”
In the hermeneutic life we are finite, open, and reachable; it is the power to recognize (not prove) the superiority of a message that is the saving grace of our finitude. Granted, we can misinterpret, lend credence to empty messages (“Understanding . . . always remains a risk”)—but that’s finitude, and there’s no way around it. There is no chance for mastery in living, by working out what is properly credible on the basis of notions like demonstration, experiential tests, sufficient evidence, and so on—the fool’s errands that modernity has sent us on, seeking a kind of legitimation that neither exists nor is needed. In life we will always have to go further than thinking like that can take us.
Critics such as Jürgen Habermas have objected to the way the person leading such a life stands open to domination—but that was Gadamer’s point. Finitude means that we will be dominated; the only question is, by what? By the illusion of critical power that turns us from the source of truth, or by the eternal partner to whom we must open our hearing to find our way? In Gadamer we have a philosophical equivalent of the Gospels’ link between childhood and conversion: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Conversion is the relinquishing of illusory power: seeing that you are a child (with limited understanding) and listening, in your weakness, to what the father has to say.
One might say that this sounds like a pretty thin philosophy, this triple openness: stand ready to recognize a dialogue partner, hear the words spoken, see oneself in them. Fair enough. The power of what Gadamer is saying doesn’t fully impress itself upon you until you see just what it means to achieve so “little” as the hermeneutic stance. Until you see hermeneutics working in the midst of a human life. For that we need autobiography.
Perhaps it was only autobiography, after all, that could show us a person living hermeneutically, open to Being, dominated by Being in the midst of personal finitude. For that we return to the Nazi period—not to Gadamer but to Viktor Frankl, founder of the psychiatric approach of logotheraphy. Well before that, in his thirties, Frankl faced a heart-rending decision that he found himself unable to resolve.
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, I was called to the American Consulate in Vienna to receive my immigration visa. My old parents expected me to leave Austria as soon as the visa was given. However, at the last moment I hesitated: the question of whether I should leave my parents beset me. I knew that any day they could be taken to a concentration camp. Shouldn’t I stay with them? While pondering this question I found that this was the type of dilemma which made one wish for a hint from Heaven. It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. My father had taken this marble piece home because it was a part of the tablets which contained the Ten Commandments. The piece showed one engraved and gilded Hebrew letter. My father explained that this letter is the abbreviation for only one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, “Which one is it?” The answer was: “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land.” So I stayed with my father and my mother upon the land and decided to let the American visa lapse.
As the result of that decision, Frankl went with his parents to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz.
Frankl had not prayed; he had simply yearned for help. Yet a word was delivered to him that overcame his weakness and marked his course—a course that, for all its horror, he never regretted (as he might well have regretted escape to America). No person gave Frankl that answer—indeed, you could scarcely say the vehicle was a text. It was a single Hebrew letter, a mere fragment of a solitary letterform. Yet it was a text, for it was full of the power of specific reference that makes language distinctive.
This was not animal entrails or starry convergences: Frankl was not free to play with the message or how it connected with his life; his place in the text was “already given.” The Commandment signified by the Hebrew letter “he” simply is the command to honor parents. It touched his crisis as a matter of fact.
The hermeneutic stance is an openness to God, a living acknowledgement that in God’s world it is God who decides how He will communicate with you. There is a radical implication in this: insignificance is thrown back at us, as a meaninglessness we impose upon the world. There is no more beautiful illustration of that than in the world’s first autobiography, St. Augustine’s Confessions—in the story of Augustine’s conversion. The word that changed Augustine’s life was a biblical command whose message it took no special hermeneutic sensitivity to hear: “Spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites”—what could be clearer? The point of interest, however, is the road that opened at a decisive moment in time between Augustine and that specific line of Scripture, just as one had opened between Frankl and the Fourth Commandment.
In a moment of spiritual anguish, Augustine had scarcely finished praying (begging God to end his attachment to the world) “when all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house. . . . Again and again it repeated the refrain ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’” You probably know the rest of the story (leaving the garden, taking up the book, reading “the first passage on which my eyes fell”). The path that, in answer to his prayer, God had instantly shown Augustine—the path leading from the garden to that verse—could only be seen with hermeneutic eyes. Which of us would have seen it? Who among us would hear the command in that song as any kind of imperative? How many other answers would we miss . . . do we miss?
The modern intellect sees through Augustine’s “accident” in the same way it scans Frankl’s bit of rubble and has a ready explanation for the link “discovered” between the Hebrew, the Decalogue, and the crisis in a random life. Our ruling concepts are “coincidence” and “projection,” as Frankl himself remarked: “Acknowledging this piece of marble as a hint from Heaven might well be the expression of the fact that already long before, in the depth of my heart, I had decided to stay. I only projected this decision into the appearance of the marble piece.” But Frankl explains (in very Gadamerian terms) that if you make projection your theme then you too will have to project something: “Much the same way would it be self-expression if one saw nothing but CaCO3 in it—although I would call this rather a projection of an existential vacuum.” If you believe in your own voice, get used to hearing it. As Gadamer explains, “Openness to the other involves recognizing that I . . . must accept some things that are against me,” as they were against Frankl’s safety and Augustine’s pleasure.
Can we hear the Father without hermeneutics? Augustine prayed and the Lord answered him, just as He answers those who do not pray and who do not know they have anything to pray about. But not even St. Augustine, sorrowfully keening for direction, would have heard that answer had he shut his ears to a distracting song that some neighborhood kid was singing as the background to his crisis. We are not talking here about meaningful banality, but about the linguisticality of the world, a world overwritten with letters, refrains, myths, parables, poems, dramas, films, stories—the “linguistic event” that connects us with Being.
If you see yourself as a creature of God environed by God’s world, you must wake to the fact that it is God who decides how He will communicate with you. And so you must open all your senses, as it were—for, “In the last analysis,” writes Gadamer, “Goethe’s statement ‘Everything is a symbol’ is the most comprehensive formulation of the hermeneutical idea.” Standing open to the eternal partner is the way to live in God’s world, the way to the life that God has offered you.
Edward Tingley is an independent scholar who lives in Montreal, Canada.