Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient Philosophy, History of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Academic
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Where does philosophy begin? Often, in the West, Thales of Miletus is considered father of philosophy. Yet, if one looks Eastward towards India and China, or South towards Egypt, there are surely philosophical origins long before Thales existed. Still, in the West the presocratics are where we look to uncover the beginning of philosophical thought. While many texts have been written addressing and interpreting the presocrates and their thought, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s The Beginning of Philosophy is not one of these – at least not in the typical sense. Gadamer’s book, based on the lectures he gave in 1988 at the Naples Institute for the Study of Philosophy in Italy, does not strictly seek to explore presocratic philosophy in its own regard, but rather hopes to address the hidden origins of philosophy.

Gadamer, a renowned philosophy of the 20th Century, with these lectures, introduces a new approach to ancient philosophy. Much of the current literature on presocratic philosophy focuses strictly on the ideas generated and discussed in relation to their influence on the future development of philosophy. While Gadamer does not fall far from this in his lectures, the book’s beginning two chapters “The Meaning of Beginning” and “Hermeneutic Access to Beginning” pave the way for a unique approach to thinking about presocratic philosophy. For this review, I will focus on this new approach Gadamer suggests and then briefly discuss how this new approach to presocratic thought lends itself to a more complete system of thought, rather than a series of seemingly sporadic fragments.

When we ask ourselves “where does philosophy begin?,” it is often question answered by reference to a time, place, or individual. Interest in actual interpretation of presocratic philosophy was never really a task set forth by intellectuals until the nineteenth century romantics in Germany, with Hegel and Schleiermacher (10). Still, none questioned the very origins of presocratic thought. Why did it develop the way it did? Was it mere curiosity? Was it the myths that sparked interest in things unseen? Gadamer, thinks that there is a secret origin to which “beginning” refers. He writes that “there is yet another, far more obscure precursor – something that lies prior to all rich in tradition, prior to medical literature as well as presocratics, namely, the language spoken by the Greeks” (13).

The Greek language is well-formed to investigate philosophical questions. Gadamer notes two aspects of the Greek language which make it most suitable for philosophic inquiry as being, in the first place, the use of the neuter, and in the second, the existence of the copula (14). Regarding the former, he writes that “It has to do not with the quality of a being, but the quality of a whole space, “being,” in which all beings appear” (14). This poses Greek as a language not only capable of abstraction, but rooted in an abstraction. The copula, which relates to the actual sentence structure in Greek, refers to the “use of the verb ‘to be’ to link the subject and the predicate” (14). Together, these two important distinguishing characteristics of the language used by the presocratics, positioned them to be able to immerse themselves into what would become philosophy.

The second sense of “beginning” is reflective, in that it already presupposes an end. “The anticipation of an end is a prerequisite for a concrete beginning” Gadamer suggests (15). In other words, beginnings always have an end or goal towards which they progress. There is, then, a teleology at work in the development of history, particularly in the history of philosophy. However, this development, already contains its end within its beginning and as such, nothing given to it along its progression is innovative or unexpected. So long as “nothing new, no innovation, and nothing unforeseen is present, there is also no history to relate” and so thus the “primordial opposition between nature and spirit” enters into philosophical discourse (16).

Gadamer here offers a final consideration of the meaning of “beginning,” which is most suitable for discussing the presocratics and their role in the history of philosophy. This is “beginning” as incipience, rather than the incipient entity. This allows that “many eventualities – within reason, of course – are still possible (17). More so, it escapes a predetermined or a presupposed path – it signifies an element of “uncertainty”. Gadamer thinks this is true of presocratic thought, in which there is “a seeking without knowledge of the ultimate destiny” that their seeking will have or at which it may conclude.

After setting up the three meanings of beginning as his premises, Gadamer shifts to focusing on the history of philosophy from a hermeneutic standpoint. This is what he calls ‘effective history’ and approaches the issue of scholarship through problemgeschichte, or, “problem history.” “In this sense,” writes Gadamer, “a problem is something that impedes the progress of knowledge” (25). Thus, in different fields and disciplines, the problemgeschichte is different. In more scientific fields we must continuously seek additional confirmation, never feeling fully satisfied by the current theory. Likewise, in most fields, if we disprove a theory, it is of little to no more use.

Philosophy, unlike other disciplines, does not disregard the problem simply because any possible solution has also been eliminated. It is, then “not correct to say that if a problem admits of no falsification then it presents no question to the thinker” (26). We must therefore approach the presocratics differently than has been previously attempted. Rather than interpreting the texts out of our own vantage point, that is, via reflection, we should instead let the text itself provided us with an interpretation. This means simply that “it is not correct to assert that the study of a text or tradition is completely dependent upon our own decision making” (28).

As Gadamer continues on with his lectures on the presocratics, he uses this approach so as to only use what the text itself allows for, without filling in gaps with speculation and reasoned interpretation. Only what the texts suggest does he consider to be a valid method of understanding the presocratic philosophers and their views. In doing so, he offers a unique approach to the contemplation of the very origin of philosophic thought.

Overall, this work provides an attempt to reconsider the presocratics in a way not typically found. The approach offered by Gadamer is one which enables the reader to reconnect with the texts themselves rather than resting only upon various interpretations. While this gives one a different method with which they can approach the presocratic texts and philosophies, it does not actually result in a new way of perceiving the presocratics. No real new insight is offered into the presocratics and their views, other than some details which have perhaps at times been overlooked due to the current “survey” methods used.

Due to its depth, I would not recommend this book to anyone altogether unfamiliar with ancient Greek thought as much of the value of the book would be lost in such a case. However, this text is valuable, especially for those who study philosophy and ancient philosophy in particular. It carries with it not only the new approach offered throughout, but also a new appreciation for the presocratics which are so often overlooked or by-passed.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient philosophy
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)

The textual history of The Beginning of Philosophy is long and convoluted. Its origins are in Gadamer’s final lecture course as Professor Emeritus at Heidelberg delivered shortly before his retirement at the end of 1967. 20 years later, Gadamer delivered a series of Italian lectures on the same topic without a script. These were recorded and transcribed by Vittorio DeCesare. Reclam published a German translation by Joachim Schulte (Der Anfang der Philosophie (1988)). The present volume is based on Gadamer’s own ‘definitive revision’ of Schulte’s translation (ix).

It is perhaps appropriate that there should be such ambiguity about whether, and in what way, we can reasonably hope to have the authoritative version of this text. For rendering such questions explicit was Gadamer’s life’s work.

Gadamer’s theme is the beginning of Western philosophy, which he says also represents the beginning of Western culture (1). But what is most illuminating about the volume is the way in which Gadamer approaches his subject. He claims early on that ‘the sole philosophical access to an interpretation of the Presocratics’ is not Thales, Homer, or the Greek language but Plato and Aristotle. ‘Everything else is historicism without philosophy.’ (2) And, as he explains towards the end of the book, ‘I would not by any means want to be understood as though I did not appreciate the method of the historians. It is just that philosophy is something different.’ (102)

This ‘something different’ is a way of thinking that, rather than trying to eliminate the prejudices that are integral to all understanding, acknowledges them and works within their constraints. For, as Gadamer defines them, our prejudices are simply our rootedness in a tradition (38). Gadamer’s insistence on Plato and Aristotle as our sole hermeneutic access to the Presocratics is motivated by his recognition of the inadequacy of the concept of method ‘in the sense of guaranteeing objectivity’. For when they spoke of their predecessors, ‘Plato and Aristotle did not have our historical scholarship in mind but were guided by their own interests, by their own search for truth’ (22). Therefore, the sense of ‘beginning’ that Gadamer has in mind is ‘that of the beginning that does not know in advance in what way it will proceed’ (12). True research is not about finding answers as much as it is about discovering new questions and imagining fruitful new ways of posing them (17). Thus Gadamer embarks on his discussions of the Presocratic conception of the soul and its relationships to life and death.

His distinctive philosophical approach to these discussions, however, draws attention to his key point. Every text has at least two contexts: that in which it was created and that in which it is read. It follows from the fact that it is impossible, in a given case, to know whether these contexts align that, ‘torn out of its context,’ a quotation can be used for any purpose whatsoever. ‘Whoever quotes,’ Gadamer says, ‘already interprets by means of the form in which he or she presents the text of the quotation.’ (13) Witness the quite different purposes for which the Presocratics were quoted by the Stoics, Sceptics, and patristic writers. While there are significant difficulties involved in using the texts of Plato and Aristotle (which were not written for this purpose) to find out about this other tradition, Gadamer believes that Plato’s transparent use of that tradition to depict ‘his own turn toward the Idea’ (31) permits him to ‘guess at certain tendencies of the culture of this bygone era’ (30) in a way denied to the compilers of compendia of Presocratic quotations.

With regard to the first context, that in which the ancient Greek texts were created, Gadamer displays an erudition that is rare today. But it is their second context, that of contemporary philosophy, that impresses this reader with greater urgency. Through his engagement with Greek culture, Gadamer hopes to realize his ideal of philosophical research as ‘a movement that is open at first and not yet fixed but which concretizes itself into a particular orientation with ever-increasing determinateness’. What this engagement shows is that the supposed freedom of modern science to stand at a distance from the object being investigated simply does not exist. ‘We all stand in the life-stream of tradition’, Gadamer writes, ‘and do not have the sovereign distance that the natural sciences maintain in order to conduct experiments and to construct theories.’ (19) Rather than a philosophically problematic relation between subject and object, which is simply presupposed by the empirical method, Gadamer stresses ‘participation’, ‘like the believer who is faced with a religious message’ (22). While this may read like a challenge to the natural sciences’ ideal of objectivity, which they threaten to extend even to the human subject, Gadamer reassures us that the human sciences are properly occupied with quite different tasks (21).

In instructive contrast to the contemporary academy, where not only the social sciences but also the human sciences and philosophy have arguably been infected by these naturalistic inclinations, Gadamer identifies the ‘highest point of Greek philosophy’ as the idea of a ‘mutuality of participation existing between object and subject’. ‘For the Greeks,’ he writes, ‘the essence of knowledge is the dialogue and not the mastery of objects’. (60)

Such thoughts emerging from Gadamer’s reading of the Presocratics via Plato and Aristotle, will be familiar to the readers of phenomenologists like Karl Jaspers, who explicitly described the nature of the subject–object split [Subjekt–Objekt Spaltung] in similar terms. Subject and object are not to be reified, considered as entities or substances, each of which could possibility exist without the other. A Spaltung, usually translated as ‘split’ or ‘cleavage’, is not a dichotomy. It is a distinction between aspects of reality that are, at the most primordial level, unified. In form as well as content, then, The Beginning of Philosophy leads us to the perhaps unexpected conclusion that it is the phenomenological method, for Gadamer represented by Husserl and Heidegger, that has ‘pointed the way for contemporary philosophy’ (60).

Martin Heidegger: The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides

The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides Book Cover The Beginning of Western Philosophy: Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger - Translated by Richard Rojcewicz
Indiana University Press
Hardcover, £35

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queen’s University Belfast)

In The Beginning of Western Philosophy Heidegger offers a reinterpretation of Anaximander’s and Parmenides’ surviving fragments. His intention, following the project initiated in Being and Time, is to illustrate that the concept of Being bequeathed to us not only rests upon a corrupted concept but that philosophy, as we understand it, is at its very core misguided. The aim of seeking out the beginning of philosophy is suggested at the beginning of the lecture where Heidegger rhetorically questions, ‘Our mission: the cessation of philosophising?’ The self-appointed custodian to Nietzsche’s philosophical heritage, Heidegger believed that the consequences of his task would bring about the end of metaphysics and prepare the grounds for subsequent thinkers. This is evident in the bold assertion, ‘I have no philosophy at all. My efforts are aimed at conquering and preparing the way so that those who will come in the future might perhaps again be able to begin with the correct beginning of philosophy.’ In claiming such, Heidegger can be seen to acquit himself of the charges of ethical nihilism and the claim that his support of National Socialism logically followed from the individualism of his ontology, which severely tarnished his philosophical reputation. However, whether or not this judgment is correct or an attempt to undermine his critics, remains to be qualified.

The text itself is composed of a tripartite structure. The first part focuses on Anaximander’s dictum: ‘but whence things take their origin, thence always precedes their passing away, according to necessity; for they pay one another penalty (dike) and retribution (tisis) for their wickedness (adikia) according to established time.’ Rather than taking Anaximander to be simply discussing coming-to-be and passing away, Heidegger interprets the dictum instead to be concerned with ‘appearing’ and ‘disappearing’. Although the understanding of appearance as the Being of beings, might seem like a linguistic quibble, Heidegger later illustrates that this has profound implications. This reinterpretation then leads him to strip dike, tisis, and adikia of any judicial-moral meaning, and instead understand them as ‘compliance’, ‘correspondence’, and ‘non-compliance’. He also highlights that Anaximander discusses Being ‘according to established time’ which grants validity to his own ontological convictions. In this lecture series Heidegger’s analytic rigour is at its height. In reinterpreting Anaximander’s dictum, which initially appeared to be a quite straight -forward claim regarding being and non-being, Heidegger elucidates that it is a very complex, ontologically loaded statement, indeed.

Part two focuses on the question of Being generally and why it is worthy of our concern. Heidegger begins by considering four objections to the given interpretation: unbridgeable span of time, antiquated, crude and meagre, and unreal. Having dismissed each of these he then continues to elucidate the question of Being. This section is of primary importance to Heidegger scholars who are not only interested in ontology, but also his account of existence. Here his understanding of existence is demarcated as existere, literally, standing out. He also distinguishes his approach from both the public notion and the refined concept employed by Kierkegaard. The latter of these, he suggests, is employed by Karl Jaspers. Heidegger goes to great lengths to distinguish himself from Jaspers, his contemporary and fellow advocate of existenzphilosophie. Here Heidegger claims that although they both use the same terminology, and have been categorised together, that their projects are unrelated. ‘According to the sound of the words Jaspers and I have precisely the same central terms: Dasein, existence, transcendence, world. Jaspers uses all these in a total different sense and in a completely different range of problems.’

The third part, which dominates the discussion, consuming almost half of the text, addresses the fragments of Parmenides’ didactic poem that have been preserved in various sources. This almost mystic text discusses the goddess aletheia, which is usually translated as ‘truth’, but which Heidegger interprets as ‘unconcealment’. In his analysis of the poem, which he discusses meticulously, Heidegger derives three main claims that he believes Parmenides to be making. The first of these is the ‘axiomatic statement’, that Being and apprehension belong together: ‘where Being, there apprehension, and where no apprehension, no Being’. The second is the ‘essential statement’ which provides insight into the essence of Being as excluding negativity: ‘we always encounter only the assertion that matters stand thus with Being’. The third and final claim is what Heidegger terms the ‘temporal statement’, that Being and time exists in an exclusive and necessary relationship: ‘being stands in relation to the present and only to it’. The result of uncovering these three philosophical claims is that they grant validity to Heidegger’s ontological re-evaluation regarding the question of Being.

Through reinterpretation, Heidegger illustrates that the question of Being permeates the very core of pre-Socratic thought. He can thus be seen to continue the project initiated in Being and Time. Written five years later, The Beginning of Western Philosophy elucidates many of the ideas first presented there. By illustrating that Anaximander and Parmenides were concerned with the Being of beings, Heidegger can be seen to open the ground back into Being. However, what about the interpretations, themselves? Are they simply incubators for Heidegger to cultivate his own philosophical inclinations? As with the majority of his lectures and monologues on other philosophers, Heidegger describes their thought in his own jargon and frames it in relation to his own philosophy. Although one may be inclined to dismiss this text on the ground that it does not offer a true interpretation of the content that it claims to, Heidegger himself addresses this criticism. He cautions one who would make such a critique to ‘pay attention primarily not to the means and paths of our interpretation, but to what these means and paths will set before you. If that does not become especially essential to you, then the discussion of the correctness or incorrectness of the interpretation will a fortiori remain inconsequential.’

What of the edition itself? For the same reason that it will be of interest to classics scholars it is repellent to modern academics that are not versed in Ancient Greek. There are dense passages of Greek and terms are often employed with the assumption that the reader possesses prior knowledge. This may have been appropriate at the time Heidegger wrote the lectures, when Ancient Greek was included in the curriculum. However, this modern translation, and the contemporary reader, would have been benefited from the romanisation of the Greek. Moreover, it seems thoughtless that a German-English glossary has been included yet there is no such consideration for a Greek equivalent. A further concern is that the idea of an index has been completely abandoned altogether. The absence of which is of great disservice to the scholar unable to recollect a much needed quote or passage. This edition could also have been improved with an introduction to contextualise the present volume. What was the purpose of these lectures, what preceded them, how does this build upon Heidegger’s project, and what original insights does it offer? In conclusion, to those in the know, the content offers illumination on the ontological trajectory initiated in Being and Time; however, to those less acquainted, this particular edition does not.