Gadamer and the Philosophy of Education
“It is not so much our judgements as it is our prejudices that constitute our being,” writes Hans-Georg Gadamer in the opening paper of a collection of his essays titled Philosophical Hermeneutics (Gadamer 1976). This claim is a provocative one and announces one of the more memorable motifs in Gadamer’s writings. It also pursues in fresh directions a new note in twentieth-century Western philosophy originally introduced by Heidegger. But more importantly for educational purposes, as we shall see, it opens up some promising paths for how teaching and learning are to be thought about, researched, and carried out.
Gadamer’s Radical Preoccupations
Gadamer is a philosopher who has concentrated on investigating the inescapable features of human understanding and the kinds of encounters with inheritances of learning through which understanding itself is advanced, or sometimes beclouded. It is surprising then that he has written little specifically on education. An active philosophical career spanning more than seven decades – till his death in 2002 at the age of 102 – has seen the publication of 42 books and monographs and over 350 articles, increasing portions of which are translated into English, Italian, French, and other languages. Five short essays of his on higher education – chiefly in Germany – have been assembled in English as Part I of a 1992 collection titled Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History – Applied Hermeneutics (Misgeld and Nicholson 1992). In addition, Gadamer has made some references to his own education in his autobiographical collection of short essays Philosophical Apprenticeships (1985). Apart from these occasional writings, education does not feature as a topic in Gadamer’s work. It is worth adding here however that in his hundredth year, Gadamer presented an address in Eppelheim titled “Erziehung ist Sich Erziehen” (“Education is Self-education,” Gadamer 2001). The fact remains that on themes like the defensible purposes of teaching, the emergence of one’s identity in experiences of schooling, or on issues of authority and justice in education, his writings make few explicit references. Yet they are replete with quite radical implications for issues just such as these where the practical conduct of education is concerned.
This radicalness has been overlooked by some critics who see in Gadamer’s recurring encounters with “tradition” the preoccupations of a conservative (e.g., Eagleton 1983; Caputo 1987). The radical dimension of Gadamer’s work lies not in anything like an overt political or social vision, as for instance might be said of Paulo Freire’s works, or in a different way, of John Dewey’s. It lies rather in Gadamer’s emphasis on investigating what most Western philosophy since Plato has either overlooked or misconceived, namely: “what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” when understanding of any kind takes place (Gadamer 1989, p. xxviii.). The consequences of Gadamer’s investigations into what unavoidably happens behind our epistemological backs as it were are gloomy for both epistemology and metaphysics, at least as conceived and practiced for centuries. The pretensions of metaphysics to all-inclusive knowledge and of epistemology to establishing secure foundations for certainty are thoroughly critiqued in the course of Gadamer’s enquiries. They are made to yield pride of place to something more primordial in the experience of human understanding. It is a bit disconcerting at first sight to learn what this something more primordial turns out to be: interpretation, preconceptions, even prejudices. On Gadamer’s argument, philosophical reflection can properly help us to become aware in greater degree of these predisposing constituents of human understanding. Such reflection may discipline or reorient these predispositions. But, he insists, interpretative preconceptions always remain in play and reflection cannot get rid of them in the name of autonomous reason, or certainty, or any all-encompassing overview. In undermining the traditional claims of metaphysics and epistemology then, Gadamer’s account of human understanding – which account he calls philosophical hermeneutics – suggests that human understanding, far from being ultimately capable of rational autonomy, remains somehow irrevocably biased.
A conclusion like this seems at first sight to mark a victory for subjectivism, or even relativism. This would be dismal news for education’s claim to be an enlightening and rationally defensible undertaking. But this news remains bad only as long as one’s views on rationality itself are in thrall to an outlook – still quite common in Western intellectual circles –which considers the securing of foundations for certainty to be goal of rational enquiry itself. Such a rationalist stance, including positivistic and phenomenological variants of it, is subjected to painstaking critique in Gadamer’s arguments. Engaging with a very wide range of philosophical works, these arguments seek to illuminate some inherent limitations in human understanding. Gadamer is keen to illustrate how such limitations have occasioned not only individual instances of human learning to take a wrong path, but whole traditions of human learning to do so. If these researches of Gadamer’s can indicate more promising pathways for teaching and learning and their defensible pursuit – if also more modest pathways than those which seek certainty – then the charge of relativism is revealed as misplaced. So also is faith in the rationalism of any philosophy which might wish to uphold such a charge.
New Pathways: Six Educational Themes
This brief sketch should help to highlight, in the paragraphs that follow here, the main points at issue between the new directions marked by Gadamer’s arguments and the more traditional currents of Western philosophy. In focusing on those parts of Gadamer’s philosophy that are most pertinent to educational concerns, I will identify here six key themes. These are to be found firstly in his major work, Truth and Method (Gadamer 1975 for German text, Gadamer 1989 for English translation) but they are refined and expanded upon in his subsequent writings. The six themes – which are a selective rather than a comprehensive survey – are the primacy of play (Spiel) in the experience of understanding, the principle of “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte), the predisposing of thought by language, the plurality of tradition, the “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung), and the “dialogue that we are” (das Gespräch das wir sind).
In his efforts to illustrate the primacy of play in human experience, Gadamer contrasts this primacy with that given by epistemology to the critical consciousness of the individual. The player – or participant if the word “player” sounds too trivial – in a game, a debate, a dance, or a conversation is always involved in something more than that of which he or she is conscious. While consciously contributing to the play, even with decisive personal initiatives, the player is also being played along by the ceaseless flow of actions of others: by the countless moves, reversals, anticipations, constraints, surprises, nuances of meaning, etc. which animate the play and give it its ever-emergent character as an interplay. This interplay presupposes a prior context – or contexts – of assumptions, attributions, capabilities, and so on, which gives the participants’ actions intelligibility and significance in their own eyes, if not coherence in the eyes of all. This remains true whether the play takes place in a courtroom, a classroom, a boardroom, or through a conversation, a correspondence, a journal article, a feud, or whatever. The heart of Gadamer’s point is that in our understanding of all purposeful human engagements, what we can properly attempt to achieve is the stance of a critically alert participant as distinct from that of a critically detached observer or objective analyst. (By “our” and “we,” he means humankind.) The stance of detached observer, despite its methodological or theoretical appeal, can give inflated, even illusory pretensions to the activity of critique. All critique, Gadamer argues, belongs within the larger social interplay and historical flow of that which is being critiqued.
This is one of the more important insights associated with the second of the six themes, the principle of Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (consciousness of the effects of human historicality). The twofold import of this principle can be put roughly as follows: firstly, there is the consciousness of the effects of history on the contexts where human understanding takes place; secondly, there is the consciousness of being affected in our own understanding by these effects (Gadamer 1989, p. 300 ff.). This has some sobering consequences for philosophy as rational critique. It does not rob critique of its insights or its purpose, but it deprives critique of any claims to an authoritative final word. Critical philosophy, especially as epistemology, has traditionally assumed that it can somehow get behind the contexts which predispose human efforts at understanding; that it can expose the shortcomings of such contexts and succeed in overcoming them. The intellectual attraction of success in this endeavor still presents itself frequently in philosophical discourse as something worthy of philosophy’s own best attempts. But Gadamer’s entire work argues that this attraction is a mirage that all too often fails to be recognized as such.
The third of Gadamer’s themes chosen for this summary, the predisposing of thought itself by language, addresses this issue. It is primarily in language that human experience of a world gets understood and communicated. But to learn a language as one’s own, Gadamer points out, is to become a participant in an informal apprenticeship. In this apprenticeship a growing fluency in expressions and turns of phrase is inseparably linked to the internalization of certain opinions and convictions rather than others. Some parallels with Wittgenstein’s later philosophy become evident here, where language is understood not as a set of tools to be mastered and then employed at will, but as something which remains ever active in shaping our thinking and doing, as well as our speaking. The effects of history, it turns out, pervade language and its usage just as thoroughly as they influence the consciousness, or rationality, of individuals. From this one may conclude that, despite the aura of commanding insight and conceptual mastery associated with philosophical analysis and critique, the part language plays in conditioning human experience remains crucial. Its pervasive influence in shaping whole inheritances of learning is perhaps the most significant thing about language itself. A champion of the autonomy of reason who overlooks this point might thus fail to detect some decisive presuppositions which quietly condition thought and articulation, even to the extent of stifling the best possibilities of reason itself.
Such dangers may sometimes lie elsewhere than where a rationalist philosophical orientation is disposed to look for them. From a liberal Enlightenment perspective for instance, curtailments of reason and its exercise are often seen to arise where learning and upbringing are marked by a uniformity, or conformity, of outlook invested with the authority of long tradition. There is of course an abundance of historical evidence to support this. Yet these dangers are scarcely less real where diversity has become so prevalent that it can be characterized as a disparate plurality of traditions. In this latter instance, different traditions can act as so many conformities for their own followers, each having its definite truth for its own adherents. It is worth adding that while many such traditions may be primarily religious or ethnic in character, not all are. Some may have a predominantly intellectual temper, for instance.
This introduces the fourth of the six themes: the plurality of tradition. Against both older and more recent uniformities Gadamer argues that tradition is wrongly understood as that which already possesses its own truth for its adherents. More importantly, he continues, the real significance of any tradition, or more precisely, any particular embodiment of a tradition, lies in the claim to truth of an unfamiliar kind which it addresses to the learner, or the newcomer. So this is not primarily an event of transmission on the one side and of acquiescence on the other. Rather it is an interplay that is ever pregnant with possibilities of new understandings, confrontations, misunderstandings, transformations, and so on. To be properly fruitful the interplay must try to remain open, resisting in particular the thrall of anything partisan. This identifies one of the main ethical responsibilities of teachers and educational leaders. Before leaving this point it should be noted that the English word “tradition” is used in Truth and Method to translate both of the German words Tradition and Überlieferung (e.g., Gadamer 1989, p. 306, pp. 336–338). Überlieferung signifies much more than can be captured in a single English word, namely: everything that influentially “lies over” us from the past. Its educational suggestiveness is more evident than that of the term “tradition.”
Turning now to the fifth theme, a genuine encounter with tradition involves what Gadamer calls a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung); on the one hand the horizon of understanding the learner brings with him or her to the encounter and, on the other, the horizon of something specific within tradition which addresses the learner in this encounter. This “something specific” could be a theorem in geometry, a skill in turning wood, a piece of music or verse, a theory in science, a religious teaching, a foreign language, and so on. “Fusion” (Verschmelzung) is perhaps not the best word to convey what is meant here. What Gadamer has in mind is not a melting together in which all differences are laid to rest, but an attentive to-and-fro between the learner and the otherness of that which addresses the learner. It is something in which tensions are uncovered and brought to the fore rather than glossed or passed over (Gadamer 1989, p. 306). A particular embodiment of a tradition – scientific, literary, religious, etc. – is brought to active articulation, but that articulation and its own presuppositions can also be questioned and re-questioned by the learner. The learner becomes in this event a more fluent and more discerning participant, as distinct from an “expert” or an “authority” on anything. The learner’s understanding may become transformed in such encounters. But such transformation does not make them events of mastery of something that has now been brought under the learner’s manipulative control. Rather, to allow tradition in any of its manifestations its full voice is also to acknowledge that this voice, like one’s own understanding, is subject to limitations and disfigurements. As a description of the happening of human understanding, the “fusion of horizons” seeks to illuminate this happening as something which is ever vulnerable to fallible turns, including indeed the institutionalization of such mistakes. The “fusion” is itself an active seeking for a more inclusive and self-critical understanding, as distinct from any completed understanding.
The last of the six themes, “the dialogue that we are” (Das Gespräch das wir sind), can be viewed as a natural conclusion of the other five. To illustrate this it is worth assembling these five here as a list of propositions: (a) Human rationality is properly to be understood not as something secured in place by an autonomous reason, but as a continuing play of influences which seeks a more inclusive coherence. Joining in this play means that one is being played – consciously or not – as well as playing. (b) These influences themselves bear the marks of an effective history – i.e., of a history that shapes what actually becomes more influential and what becomes less so. (c) This effective history predisposes thought and language but can also render both of them fluid, and open to new directions. (d) Tradition is properly to be understood not as the burdening force of what has already been institutionalized and which then seeks compliance from learners. Rather, tradition is to be understood as the abundant plurality of all that lies over us as humans in our cultural inheritances, old and new. (e) Encounters with inheritances of learning are properly conceived as active interplays between cultural horizons which are differently predisposed, which are becoming more fluent and critical, and which are also oriented toward a more adequate understanding.
Taken together, these five propositions suggest something crucial about humankind’s capacity for understanding, or to speak in an educational idiom, about the potentialities for understanding that learning environments need to cultivate. This “something crucial” is captured by Gadamer’s phrase “the dialogue that we are” – something that is at once both empirical and educationally beckoning. The educationally suggestive dimensions of “the dialogue that we are” are already present in Gadamer’s perceptive historical review of the concept of Bildung in the opening chapter of Truth and Method (Gadamer 1989, pp. 10–19).
To make these educational dimensions explicit is to underline the point that for Gadamer Bildung is no longer a metaphysical concept, as it was for Hegel for instance. Availing of Gadamer’s fertile insights, Bildung, as the education of one’s human capabilities and dispositions for understanding, can now be properly seen to involve a number of emphases that have commonly been passed over. These fresh points of emphasis are as important for the philosophy of education as they are for educational practice. Let us conclude with a brief reference to just four of them. The first is an emphasis on teaching and learning more as an investigative event of participation, with both overt and unseen consequences, than as a matter of transmission of cognitive content and “values.” The second is an emphasis on attentiveness to the otherness, sometimes the challenging and unsettling otherness, of that which addresses human experience when an interplay with any of the voices of tradition is deliberately undertaken. The third is an emphasis on gaining in each instance the fluency which enables an informed and critical questioning of the claim to truth embodied in such addresses. The fourth is an emphasis on incremental, or sometimes decisive shifts in self-understanding, informed as much by an attitude of self-criticism as by a capability for critique. Taken together, these points disclose something of the educational tenor of “the dialogue that we are.” That is to say they disclose something of an educationally fruitful and ethically defensible pathway for what is at once aspirational and practical in the empirical matter-of-factness of teaching and learning.
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