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11 February 2000

Hans-Georg Gadamer 100 years old

Today is the 100th birthday of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the University of Heidelberg's most renowned living scholar and one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. The following text is an abridged version of an appreciation by Prof. Dr. Dieter Borchmeyer of Heidelberg University's Department of Germanic Studies.

In his native Marburg Gadamer encountered many of the leading German thinkers of the day in the course of his studies at the university there (Natorp, Nicolai Hartmann, Bultmann, Friedländer, Curtius, Richard Hamann and others). After completing his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, he went on to study classics and wrote his Habilitation under the supervision of Martin Heidegger in 1929. Classical studies and philosophy are the two poles around which Gadamer's thinking has since unremittingly revolved. But he has also achieved renown as a highly imaginative, sensitive and authoritative interpreter of German poetry from Goethe to Celan.

Prof. Gadamer

1937 saw his first professorial appointment in Marburg, followed by a full professorship in Leipzig in 1939, where he was elected rector of the University in 1946/1947 thanks to his unimpeachable record of integrity during the Third Reich. In 1947 he moved to the University of Frankfurt and in October 1949 was appointed successor to Karl Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg. This, as he says himself, was the ultimate fulfilment of his academic career. After his retirement in 1968, 8 years after the appearance of his magnum opus "Truth and Method" (1960), he taught regularly in the United States and other countries in three continents. Philosophy in Heidelberg has been very much marked by his legacy, with a succession of philosophy professors who studied with him, among them Dieter Henrich, Friedrich Fulda, Reiner Wiehl, Wolfgang Wieland and Rüdiger Bubner. Between 1990 and 1995 the publishing house Mohr Siebeck (Tübingen) published the ten volumes of his Collected Works and has recently also brought out an authoritative Gadamer biography by Jean Grondin.

Hans-Georg Gadamer shares the date 11 February with another major thinker, René Descartes, who died on that day in Amsterdam 350 years ago. This coincidence can be looked upon as the product of something akin to historical irony. The two main works of these philosophers contain the word "Method", René Descartes' famous "Discourse on Method" dating from 1637 and Gadamer's opus summum "Truth and Method" of 1960. Some might say that Gadamer's title could equally well – indeed perhaps more appropriately – be inscribed over Descartes' famous treatise, the latter claiming after all to be no less than an instruction "pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences." The same would certainly not be true vice versa, as in Gadamer's work the quest for truth casts a constant shadow the idea of method, not least because his definition of truth is so very different from the mathematical and logical variety upheld by Descartes.

Prof. Gadamer

Quite unlike the Enlightenment's attempt to "discredit the concept of prejudice" and Descartes' methodical scepticism in this connection, Gadamer sets out to legitimise "pre-judice" as one of the main preconditions for any kind of human understanding. Attempts to deny the potency of this precondition and the belief that it is possible to be "free of prejudice" stand revealed in Gadamer's work as a misprision of the historical conditioning present in any kind of judgment whatsoever and themselves a form of prejudice in the sense of a vis a tergo, an inscrutable force. Gadamer sets out to preclude such blinkeredness by insisting on the inevitable presence of "pre-judgment", not with a view to arguing against "enlightenment" but, on the contrary, continuing in the true vein of its finest work by protesting against the "dogmatisation" of rational thinking.

Prof. Gadamer

Gadamer is concerned with the question of how we can experience truth, not only in philosophy and history but also and above all in our contemplation of art and literature. Here Gadamer has a forereunner in the anti-Cartesian Italian philosopher Gian Battista Vico, whom he has done so much to re-establish in the philosophical awareness of our century, notably the treatise "De nostri temporis studiorum ratione" (1709). In Vico's distinction between critical and rhetorical thinking Gadamer recognised a polarity that corresponded exactly to his own philosophical experience. In the sixth book of his "Ethics" Aristotle distinguishes theoretical or "epistemic" knowledge and the practical knowledge he terms "phronesis", which decides on whether or not we see and do the "right" thing in individual, changing situations. Gadamer's engagement with the term dated from a course of lectures in which Heidegger made clear to him the immense scope of the term. From it Gadamer developed a theory of practical knowledge centring on concepts like tact, taste, cognitio sensitiva, all of which derive from a capacity for a species of knowledge that goes beyond that of rationalism.

Aristotle's view of practical knowledge is the model Gadamer regards as appropriate to the humanities, the "understanding" disciplines. With it he holds up a mirror to the "liberal arts" in which they can identify the kind of knowledge proper to their concerns as opposed to those of the natural sciences. For modern literary theory this has had consequences that can hardly be overestimated. Indeed it seems fair to say that Gadamer's version of "hermeneutics" has dominated the history of serious literary studies since the 1960s by splitting its proponents into two camps, one in favour of the Gadamer vision, the other against it. On the "for" side we have such developments as the reception-oriented aesthetics of scholars like Hans Robert Jauss. On the "against" side we have currents of thought going back to the period of the students' revolts, accusing hermeneutics of reflecting on the "pre-emptive" significance of tradition for our understanding of the world without at the same time criticising it and hence liberating ourselves from it. Gadamer has been in constant and profound contact with the most important mentors of these two persuasions, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.

Prof. Gadamer

Gadamer has repeatedly stressed how difficult he initially found it to write without the "accursed feeling" that Heidegger was "looking over his shoulder". But quite apart from this he has always felt most in his element in spoken exchanges, in dialogue with others. Many of his essays are direct products of recorded lectures that he has held, frequently on a largely extempore basis. Gadamer did not produce a full-scale philosophical work until he was 60, when "Truth and Method" first appeared. And the lion's share of his Collected Works first saw the light of day after he had retired from active university life. His reluctance to put his thoughts in a "final" written form, his dialogic and maieutic approach to philosophy and not least his insistence on what he – and we – do not and cannot know all place him very much in a tradition that goes back to Socrates. His principle of always being ready and willing to venture on a dialogue with others is born not least of personal modesty and an ability to listen, what he has called the "acknowledgement of the other's rights and his possible superiority". These virtues are ones that Gadamer has put into practice on innumerable occasions, bestowing on his audiences and interlocutors the great personal and intellectual good fortune of seeing themselves respected by him as equals. Anyone who has ever met him will surely echo Hamlet's famous words: "I shall not look upon his like again".

Photos : Philipp Rothe

Prof. Gadamer

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