Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Volume 1, edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer, collects eighteen essays by Gadamer on the topic of the philosophy of history. Of these sixteen essays, two have previously appeared in English (“Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person,” Gadamer 2000; “Hermeneutics on the Trail,” Gadamer 2007). This volume on the philosophy of history is the first of a projected three of Gadamer’s selected works, and will be followed by volumes on ethics and aesthetics. By providing these materials in English translation, the editors aim to contribute to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophy and its evolution, as well as provide new context through which to understand his views:
“When it comes to a major philosopher like Gadamer a strong case can be made that scholars need to have all available essays in order to assess the different components of the philosopher’s theses, to measure the evolution of his thought through time, and to grasp all the intricacies of his views in the different contexts of their application. This is the aim of this edition.” (viii)
Note that this project is not meant to collect Gadamer’s most significant works on the philosophy of history. Rather, it supplements what is currently available in other locations in English. It also excludes short speeches and book reviews, as well as essays the editors deem not to add anything of philosophical significance to what is already available. This project is commendable, and although Gadamer develops many of the themes of this volume in books and essays already available in English, it constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and more broadly, the overall nature, context, and development of German philosophy in the twentieth-century. This volume should therefore be of interest to readers of Gadamer, continental philosophy more generally, and indeed anyone concerned with the relation between philosophy and its history.
Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which involves a vision of human life as continuously interpreting the world, attempts to show that thought and language bear an essential relation to the past. For Gadamer, what we are able to think and the questions that we are able to ask in the present emerge on the basis of historical tradition. Famously, in his magnum opus Truth and Method [Wahrheit und Methode], first published in 1960, Gadamer sought to rehabilitate the notion of “prejudice” [Vorurteil] that he thought had been unfairly maligned as a result of the Enlightenment rejection of external authority (Gadamer 2004, 268-83). Although Gadamer does not think that we should uncritically accept the judgments and ideas that have been handed down to us by tradition, he maintains that the judgments that we find pre-given as part of our cultural heritage and experience provide the positive basis for our intellectual horizons in the present. On this view, philosophy unfolds as a dialogue with the past, where we both uncover and interpret what is implicit in how we already think about the world, and in which we take up and renew what still speaks to us from across temporal distance.
From the standpoint of the historiography of philosophy, Gadamer’s position thus carves a path between approaches to philosophical history that see themselves as working to understand the past on its own terms without reference to present day philosophical concerns, and those approaches that mine the history of philosophy for arguments and solutions that can provide insight into contemporary problems without taking into account the historical genesis of these philosophical problems themselves. From a Gadamerian perspective, both of these types of approach sever the living connection between the philosophical past and the present at the heart of any genuine philosophical project. For Gadamer, the history of philosophy should not only be the province of self-described historians of philosophy; rather, every working philosopher is responding to philosophical tradition, whether they realize it or not.
The essays collected in this volume span the years of 1964-94, the period after the 1960 publication of Truth and Method, and thus represent a period in he was recognized as a major philosophical voice both in Germany and internationally. Many of the essays develop and explicate themes from Truth and Method, as well as provide Gadamer space to reflect upon his own philosophical development. Most prominently in this latter regard, ample space is given to the respective roles of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Gadamer’s teacher in the 1920s, and whose reputation Gadamer helped restore in the post-World War II period) in the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey’s historicism, philosophy of life, and hermeneutics played a major role in shaping the “hermeneutical situation” of Gadamer’s youth, Heidegger’s influence lent shape to Gadamer’s views of language, scientific objectivity and the role that the history of philosophy plays in determining our philosophical horizons.
The editors divide the volume into four parts. Part one includes six essays covering the general topic of history, and develop Gadamer’s distinctive notion of human life as “historically affected.” Part two features three essays on Dilthey’s historicist philosophy of life, and how Gadamer viewed it as an impetus for his own philosophical hermeneutics. The third part collects five essays on the works of European philosophers and intellectuals including Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. The material on Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida is particularly illuminating as it presents Gadamer’s responses to contemporaries, each of whom, in their own way, represent direct challenges to Gadamer’s phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical positions. Part Four includes four essays on Heidegger from the mid-1980s, consisting of reminiscences of Gadamer’s experiences as a student of Heidegger, Gadamer’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called Kehre as a “return” [“Ruck-kehre”], and his account of Heidegger’s interpretations of ancient Greek philosophy. In light of the recent revival of controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, spurred by the publication of the Black Notebooks (Heidegger 2014/2016), it may be of note that these essays give little insight into Gadamer’s knowledge of, or perspective on, Heidegger’s political engagements (Gadamer himself worked to maintain distance and intellectual independence from the National Socialist regime. See Grondin 2003, 150-230). Perhaps an editors’ note with clarification, or that points the reader to independent discussion of these issues would have been of use.
In addition to translating Gadamer’s essays, the editors contribute a preface and introduction, as well as notes and glossaries of German, Latin, and Greek expressions used by Gadamer. The preface introduces the contents of the volume and characterizes Gadamer’s philosophical and rhetorical style. The introduction provides a general introduction to Gadamer’s philosophical project, focusing on the role of history within it. In addition to treating Gadamerian themes including interpretation, dialogue, the speaking voice, and philosophical praxis, the introduction examines Gadamer’s philosophical influences and interlocutors such as Plato, Aristotle, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. This reader found especially helpful the editors’ account of how Gadamer’s philosophy of history relates to his philosophy of language.
In approaching this volume, I have adopted the perspective of a historian of philosophy concerned with the methodological question of how to understand the relation between the philosophical past and present. For this reason, as well as in the interest of space, the review will focus more on Gadamer’s philosophy of history, and less on the details of Gadamer’s interpretations of other philosophers that are found in this volume. This philosophy of history is directly developed in the first part of the volume. These essays include reflections on themes including historical causality, the relation between historicity and truth, the relation between human history and the natural history of the universe, what it would mean to try to separate oneself from all history, the meaning of the terms “old” and “new”, and death. Together, they provide an overarching account of Gadamer’s understanding of human life as embedded within history.
In the first essay, “Is there a Causality in History?” (1964), Gadamer argues that history is a network of events that determines our lives and that can never be reduced to a “causal analysis.” Neither naturalistic explanation in the form of efficient causality, nor a Kantian analysis of historical causality as the realm of human freedom, can capture the way that history determines human life and possibilities:
“Investigating the deeper reasons for the historical course of things is absolutely not an attempt at a ‘causal’ explanation, which would only ask for the causa efficiens. When we discern historical connections, we have not discovered a web of causal factors – of nature and freedom – whose threads we isolate only to be able to get our hands on them for the future – history never repeats itself. It is precisely in this that the reality of history consists: to be and to determine us, without ever being able to be mastered through a causal analysis.” (12)
We are embedded within history, and can never extricate ourselves from it such that we can provide an exhaustive causal account of the past and future. For Gadamer, the hermeneutic task becomes understanding that the past constrains our possibilities for action while remaining open to the contingencies of the future.
The second essay, “Historicity and Truth”, from 1991, concerns itself with the question of historical relativism. Against the view that the truth-claims found in history are relative to their times and places, Gadamer argues that this belief assumes a notion of objective knowledge as that which aims to control and master. Under this regime, we would reduce truth-claims to their specific position within history, thereby eliminating their capacity to attain a form of truth that transcends mere circumstance. If we resist this assumption, not only can we treat past philosophers as potential interlocutors, but we can understand how their ideas are capable of attaining universal application with respect to the understanding of human life and its possibilities:
“Objectivity means objectification. It signifies a constricting prejudice everywhere in that realm where breaking resistance and achieving control are not actually paramount, but rather being together and participating in the hermeneutic universe in which we live with one another. In this regard, I could show how Platonism, in addition to Aristotelianism, makes itself repeatedly relevant for the exegesis of Christian mystery and, altogether, how in the time of the enlightenment the pronouncements of art reach deep into the life of individuals and peoples, beyond all historical distances and differences as well as beyond practical and political decisions.” (23)
For Gadamer, the relevance of history and historical knowledge lies in the way that ideas may continue to speak to us across time. In taking up old ideas, we may of course translate them in applying them to our own contexts. However, this mode of application is not a distortion of the original idea; rather, it reveals what was true and therefore universal within it.
In the third essay, “The History of the Universe and the History of Things,” written in 1998, Gadamer argues that human history represents a sphere distinct from the progression of natural events or facts. Gadamer distinguishes between what he calls the “history of the universe” and “the history of the world”:
“Obviously, there also belongs to the history of the universe the question as to when humanity first appeared on this planet, which we call the Earth, and how the human species evolved – and perhaps also whether and when to expect the extinction of this species. Human beings would then be recorded like key fossils in a chapter of the history of the universe. Yet, this historical past, which we awaken through what monuments and tradition give us as hints, means something else. ‘World history’ is not a phase in the history of the universe, but is a whole in its own right. It is not primarily through the so-called ‘facts’, which can be established in objective research with the methods of the natural sciences, that we have a knowledge of this history that we call world history.” (30)
Although the history of the human world unfolds within the temporal arc of natural history of the universe, and its components can be analyzed as facts from the perspective of universal history, qua features of the history of the human world, they are not reducible to natural facts. Unlike the fossilized remains of natural history, that which belongs to the history of the human world is, for Gadamer, what is retained in living memory in the form of monuments and traditions. This history is that which provides significance for our lives, as well as what gives us an inkling of our specifically human possibilities in the future.
Whereas the “history of the universe” is the object of the natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften], the “history of the world” is the domain of the human sciences. Gadamer argues that we do not know the truths pertaining to the human sciences with certitude or in an objective manner. Rather, the human sciences such as philosophy, anthropology, or art history, participate in the very cultural practices that they study, helping to open up new human possibilities through their modes of reflection:
“Human sciences rather belong to orders that constantly configure and reconfigure themselves through our own concrete participation in them and thereby contribute to our knowledge about the human possibilities and normative commonalities that affect us […] There are no certainties here like the guarantees of the theoretical and ‘scientific’ kind and here we always need to consider the other side – not only what we have in mind, but also what others think.” (41)
One upshot of all of this, for Gadamer, is that the human sciences have an important role to play in moving our multicultural, global world into the future. Not only do the human sciences have the potential to create dialogue between disparate groups around the world, but Gadamer maintains that they have a further potential to help resist the global domination of technology insofar as they eschew objectifying forms of knowledge:
“In our pluralistic world, the other also includes foreign cultures and distant inhabitants of this earth. We will have to learn all this more and more in the future. Our human goal cannot be to use a technological civilization in order to stifle everything that has been handed out to us or to others and has shaped us all in the forms our life has taken. Only when we put the capacities of understanding and mutual acceptance to use in the new tasks that bring and hold the world in equilibrium, will we be able to create new forms of organization. Of all the sciences, it is especially the so-called human sciences that contribute the most to the nurturing of these capacities. They force us to confront constantly in all its richness the entire scale of what is human and all too human.” (41)
The fourth essay, a lecture given in 1969 entitled “A World without History?”, defends the importance of the art of reading and specifically historical knowledge against what Gadamer characterizes as “the omnipresence of a constant flood of information” (48) in the modern world. Together with the view that all knowledge should be modeled on the knowledge proper to the natural sciences, Gadamer suggests that this flow of information from the media threatens to produce thoughtless conformity and manufactured opinion. Within this situation, Gadamer advocates for a recognition of the importance of playful reading and historical knowledge. Here, Gadamer is less concerned with history in the sense of the objective facts of what took place at what time, and more with what is handed down in the living memory of the past:
“Without knowledge and without reflecting on our own proper possibilities, there is for us no future. However, this means, not without history. History does not mean an evasion into the past, but is a memoria vitae, a memory of life, as Cicero calls historiography. History, the world of history, is not a second world of the past alongside the natural world that surrounds us. History is a completely inexhaustible system of all the worlds that are out there, which are closer to us than the nearby satellite orbiting our earth. For, history is the world of human beings. To study history is to keep open the entire range of what it means to be human. Thanks to history we are not confined to what we know or think by ourselves. History describes all our possibilities. As for what kind of future we will have, it will depend on how broadly we preserve and increase the heritage of the historical tradition from which we all originate and which unifies us all more and more.” (49)
Within the context of the social criticism of this essay, we recognize the larger significance, for Gadamer, of history for human life. Beings historically affected means that there is no gap between the historical world of the past and our world in the present. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of information threatens to cut us off from this living history, trapping us in the present and constraining our ability to genuinely think. Thus, Gadamer fears that a “world without history” is a world in which human beings are servile and manipulable.
The fifth essay, “The Old and the New” (1981), presents a phenomenological analysis of the categories of the “old” and the “new.” Here Gadamer argues that, in a strict sense, the “old” is that which appears as so familiar as to be irrelevant. We may indeed become interested in things that are “old” in the sense of being from the past, but insofar as we do, we have discovered new possibilities for their application, thereby making them “new” again.
“‘Always after the new.’ The expression betrays us: it is not the old and the new that are up for choice, but this or that, what promises something and because it promises something. It can also be something old. It is in fact never the choice between the old and the new. The old is never up for choice as something old. To the extent that it is old, it has reached the obviousness of what is familiar. Only in light of new possibilities can it be put up for choice at all as a counterpossibility and elicit our attention.” (54)
Gadamer then takes occasion to reflect upon our phenomenological experience of time, which is split between the dimensions of the past, present, and future. What is truly past or old, is what is no longer possible. The future, by contrast, Gadamer conceives of as that which stands before us, and in this sense may include “past” possibilities that have been made new:
“This is precisely the experience that time is for us: its two dimensions, future and past, are never the present. However, this means that they do not stand in front of us like two equal possibilities. One is the possible, the past is well and truly gone. Even a god cannot make unhappen what has happened. What stands before us [was vor uns steht] is what may await us [was uns bevorstehen mag]. Even when it is something well-known that awaits us, it is no longer what is usual and known, but appears in a new light.” (54)
For Gadamer, the category of the “new” — as that which awaits for us in the future — will always include elements of the [temporal] past for which we have found new applications and possibilities.
The final essay of the first part, a philosophical reflection upon death from 1975 entitled “Death as a Question”, presents a formulation of the philosophical activity that connects it to tradition. For Gadamer, the universality of hermeneutics means that we are always interpreting ourselves and our world. In this sense, philosophy becomes a knowledge of the already known, which Gadamer associates with the Platonic theory of recollection or anamnēsis:
“These are questions to which philosophy must devote itself in its own way because the task of philosophy is to want to know what we know without knowing that we know it. This is a precise definition of what philosophy is and an  apt description of what Plato first recognized: the knowledge with which we are dealing here, anamnēsis, is a bringing out of the interior and a raising to consciousness. Let us, thus, ask what one knows without knowing it when one knows about death. What does the philosophical tradition we inhabit have to say about it? Should we also ask about these attempts at thinking whether they are attempts to know or whether they are yet again ways of not wanting to know what we know?” (62)
Insofar as human life and philosophizing is embedded within history, Gadamer argues that philosophical reflection is one of recollection. Specifically, we are attempting to make present to ourselves that which, by virtue of the traditions in which we stand, we have always already known.
From a review of the philosophy of history sketched in Part 1, we learn that, for Gadamer, human life is embedded within history, which provides the horizon of our future possibilities. Not only is our human history distinct from the natural history of the universe, but we cannot avoid the way that it determines and constrains what is possible for us. The hermeneutical task becomes one of surveying the past, [re]-discovering that which continues to speak to us across time, and making it new again in applying it to the present.
If this is Gadamer’s general view of the place and role of history in human life, in the remainder of this review, I wish to apply this philosophy of history to the particular view of the history of philosophy that Gadamer presents in this volume. In so doing, I aim to test the limits of Gadamer’s account in order to pose the question of whether or not present-day readers should take up Gadamer’s hermeneutics as part of the “philosophical new,” or if they ought to, rather, consign it to a place in the history of philosophy with the “philosophical old.”
As is clear in this volume, and especially in the essays on Heidegger in part four, Gadamer himself understood his own philosophy as part of a larger Western/European tradition stretching back to Greek antiquity. For Gadamer, this Greek beginning of philosophy, and its subsequent effects, enable us to form a principled distinction between philosophy as it has been practiced in Europe and the Western world more broadly, and what we might think of, for instance, under the rubric of “Eastern philosophy.” As Gadamer describes the Heideggerian theme of the “end of philosophy” in the lecture “On the Beginning of Thought” in 1986:
“When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny. To speak with Heidegger: it is a destiny of being that has in fact become our destiny. The civilization of today, as it appears, finds its fulfilment in this destiny.” (229-30)
Following the “history of being” traced by Heidegger, the Greek beginning of philosophy is decisive insofar as its echoes shape the subsequent development of Western thinking. In Gadamer’s view, philosophical thinking as it descends from Greece self-consciously differentiates itself from religion. Further, philosophy aims for theoretical knowledge of nature, and as becomes evident in the Modern period and its separation of philosophy from the natural sciences, it attempts to produce methodological justification for the epistemic activity carried out in the natural sciences. These features of Greek-inspired Western philosophy may be found in such historical instances as the codification of Greek metaphysics in the Latin tradition, the emergence of Cartesian subjectivity and method in the seventeenth-century, the Kantian critique of metaphysics, the great philosophical systems of German idealism, and the ongoing technological domination of the natural world. Thus, Gadamer does seem to affirm a distinction between philosophy as a specifically “Western” intellectual tradition and forms of intellectual activity carried out in other coordinates in the human world:
“When we hear about the end of philosophy, we understand it from such a situation. We realize that the separation between religion, art, and philosophy, and perhaps even the separation between science and philosophy, are not originally common to all cultures, but precisely shaped the particular history of the Western world. One can ask oneself what kind of destiny this is. Where does it come from? How is it that technology could develop into such an autonomous force of necessity that it has become the hallmark of human culture nowadays? When we question in this manner, Heidegger’s surprising and apparently paradoxical thesis suddenly appears to be disturbingly plausible: it is Greek science and metaphysics, whose effects in today’s global civilization dominate our present.” (230)
On the basis of this account of the history of philosophy, it becomes natural to identify the philosophical task as one of interpreting and making explicit one’s own philosophical heritage. Indeed, we have seen that this task corresponds to Gadamer’s own philosophy of history as outlined in Part 1 of this volume: only by these means can one understand the linguistic and conceptual influences that shape one’s philosophical horizons, and indeed thereby have any hope of breaking free or of thinking something genuinely new.
However, what if one does not identify with this particular tradition of philosophy? Or, for that matter, what if one rejects the particular Gadamerian narrative of the history of philosophy? On this score, readers may be skeptical, for instance, of the distinction that Gadamer, following Heidegger, draws between “philosophy” [i.e. “Western philosophy”] and the rich traditions of metaphysical, ethical, and social-political thinking found in other parts of the human world. Though this distinction is drawn on the basis of a substantive claim regarding the existence of a distinct tradition of philosophical thinking originating in Classical Greek antiquity, one may contest the historical, linguistic, or theoretical continuity and integrity of such a tradition as set apart from the rest of global intellectual history. Further, if we assume its existence, we may worry that reserving the name “philosophy” for it alone might permit philosophers to disregard the contributions of thinkers from other parts of the world, insofar as those not in dialogue with the Western tradition were, by definition, not engaging in “philosophy.”
For readers skeptical on these grounds, the measure of Gadamer’s continuing philosophical relevance or “newness” may well be the degree to which one is willing to separate Gadamer’s broader philosophy of history from the history of philosophy as he himself conceived of it. Indeed, in Gadamer’s defense, one could imagine him replying that all genuine human questioning unfolds upon the backdrop of some tradition, and that it would therefore be a mistake to reject this insight and its consequences as a result of a disagreement over the facts of philosophical history. In any case, he would very likely agree that the task of delineating the true scope, meaning, nature of philosophy is one that must be continuously renewed, not least in the course of interacting with those from outside of the particular traditions one may call home.
As this volume of essays on Gadamer’s philosophy of history makes clear, the significance of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for us today is dependent upon our willingness and ability to apply it within our own philosophical situation and questions. In this regard, I could not escape the impression that the editors could have done more to provide guidance regarding how Gadamer’s hermeneutics could productively contribute to ongoing philosophical projects. Though they indicate, for instance, Gadamer’s critical relationship with Derridean deconstruction (xviii-xix), or that the philosopher John McDowell has acknowledged a Gadamerian inspiration present in his 1994 book Mind and World (xiii), are there more recent, active philosophical projects that are being carried out in what we might think of as a Gadamerian spirit? Does Gadamer’s critique of the objectivizing methodology of the natural sciences hit its mark, or may he find sympathetic ears in contemporary post-positivist practitioners of the philosophy of science? In this reviewer’s view, areas in which Gadamer’s philosophy of history may prove relevant and fruitful include methodological discussions in philosophical historiography (e.g. Catana 2008, 299-304), and comparative philosophy aiming for cross-cultural dialogue (Berger et al. 2017). In light of Gadamer’s insistence that philosophical truth emerges in the application of ideas from the history of philosophy to the present, the editors may have missed an opportunity to test Gadamer’s applicability today and lend further support to the continuing relevance of his philosophical hermeneutics.
Berger, Douglas L., Hans-Georg Moeller, A. Raghuramaraju, and Paul A. Roth. 2017. “Symposium: Does Cross-Cultural Philosophy Stand in Need of a Hermeneutic Expansion?” Journal of World Philosophies 2: 121–43.
Catana, Leo. 2008. The Historiographical Concept “System of Philosophy”: Its Origin, Nature, Influence and Legitimacy. Leiden: Brill.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2000. “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person.” Translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey. Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275–87.
———. 2004. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd, Revised Edition ed. London; New York: Continuum.
———. 2007. “Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace [On Derrida].” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 372–406. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Grondin, Jean. 2003. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2014. Uberlegungen II-VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931-1938). Edited by Peter Trawny. Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 94. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
———. 2016. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
To consider the phenomenology of scripture is a challenging task, not only because it wades into religion, a subject area preloaded with emotions and identities, but because it wades into the tension between theological readings and scientific/historical readings of scriptural texts. The essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, edited by Adam Y. Wells, seek to apply the unofficial model of phenomenology, “back to the things themselves,” to the study of scripture. Specifically, the application of phenomenology in this collection of essays aims “to shift the center of biblical studies from science to scripture itself.” (1) Wells states that “the phenomenology of scripture must begin with a radical openness to scripture, rigorously avoiding the temptation to declare at the outset what scripture can or must mean.” (7)
At first appearance, this sounds simple enough. Rather than prejudge what a scriptural passage means, we are open to the passage showing its meaning to us. However, a phenomenological openness to scripture is complicated—particularly the question of what we are bracketing off in our epoché. There are two challenges facing the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture. One, how can any text, especially religious scripture, be understood apart from its social-historical context. Two, how can scripture be read without preconceptions about the truth of the religion itself? On the first challenge, to consider the text itself outside of its social context is artificial and perhaps prejudicial. There is a temptation within religion to consider scripture as having arrived inspired, if not dictated, by a divine source rather than from a social-historical context. It would be hypocritical to bracket off the social-historical context without also bracketing off the assumption that the text is the “Word of God” and thus outside of any worldly context. Scripture, even if divinely inspired, is a set of particular words in particular languages written down at particular times and places. To make sense of the gospel and epistles requires that we not bracket off consideration of ancient Greek language and Hellenistic cultural understandings if we are to make sense of the frequent allegories and word usages.
On the second, more profound challenge, a phenomenology of scripture must be open to the text itself without preconceived notions about the truth claims of the religion to which it belongs. Phenomenology does mean going back to the text itself, but one’s worldview cannot help but inform interpretation of the text’s meaning. There is frequently a prejudgment either for or against religion in the reading of any scriptural passage. The authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture are justifiably cautious about a scientific/historical approach to scripture because that methodology has at times been accompanied by prejudgments that religious beliefs are false. Unfortunately, several of these authors fail to apply the epoché equally, and accompanying their approach to scripture is a prejudgment that religious belief is true. Whether one has the belief that a religion is true or the belief that it is false, either belief will restrict one’s interpretation of what a scriptural passage can mean. A phenomenology of scripture must first and foremost cast off any prejudgments in favor of or against religion. A good phenomenologist considering a religious text would read a passage without requisitioning it to serve a premeditated agenda. He or she would openly consider both the text of the passage and the religious claims that inform the passage and the religious claims that are informed by the passage. Plus, the phenomenologist would offer insights to the text that are not restricted to those who already believe or already disbelieve. It is self-evident that hostility toward religion prejudices one’s reading of scripture, but it seems at cross-purposes with a phenomenology of scripture to declare at the outset that the bible fits within the doctrine of the church. Despite this, several authors in this book do just that.
Several of the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture interpret the book’s task differently than how I have and are carving out a distinctly Christian phenomenology. Several of them make a solid case for such a methodology. Robyn Horner says, “A phenomenological reading is an attempt to bring to light; it should only bring a light to bear on a text in order to show what is given there.” (115) What is given in scripture is a message to the Christian community, so she also says, “I read here, as one who listens to the text in the context of the Christian community.” (115) Whether or not one agrees with that combination, Horner is phenomenologically consistent within her prejudgment of Christian truth by bracketing off prejudgments about the text’s meaning after accepting its Christian context. In her analysis of the gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Horner talks about the experience of Jesus within herself during reading the passage. There is a connection between reading of scripture and religious experience, and Horner is correct that religious phenomena are not to be a priori excluded as a possibility. (119) Her position is that religious phenomena described in scripture ultimately are to be explained theologically but that this still requires discrimination and discernment. (119-120)
Horner’s essay raises the question of whether, if we are to get the meaning out of the text, the reading of scripture is necessarily a religious or devotional act. It is legitimate to ask whether a purely neutral and objective reading of a scriptural text possible or even desirable. Jean-Louis Chrétien thinks not. (140-141) He argues that we are touched by certain passages in a characteristic way when they are powerful enough to speak to us, explaining that “The failures of a weak man before miniscule difficulties of everyday life do not move me in the same way as the shipwrecks of a strong man in great trials.” (128) Chrétien likens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a drama of “the manifestation and the revelation of evil as evil by means of the interdict pronounced by the law.” (131) The law in question is the Jewish Torah, and its role in the emerging Christian faith is a thorny theological issue for Paul. Any reading of Paul’s words in Romans must acknowledge that Paul’s words are an expression of one side within a theological dispute. The drama of the dispute can touch us either as neutral onlookers or as people invested in the outcome of the dispute, but these are decidedly different dramas. Chrétien states that the passage he analyzes in Romans is heavy with stakes of great consequence for the comprehension of Christian existence and that this is why he believes a purely neutral and objective approach is insufficient. This is true if we are invested in the dispute, not simply as Christians, but as Christians who believe that Paul’s position on the issue of Jewish law is relevant to our Christian existence. This certainly describes Chrétien’s position, and it informs his reading of Paul.
Horner and Chrétien apply phenomenology within the sphere of Christian hermeneutics with the aim of deepening the understanding of the meaning of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with such legitimate applications of the phenomenological method as long as the parameters are made clear. Phenomenologies of Scripture could be clearer on this point—that the essays are Christian phenomenology of Christian scripture. No viewpoints of phenomenologies of, for example, Buddhist or Islamic scriptures are offered, and Jewish scriptures are discussed only in terms of their inclusion in and relevance to the Christian faith. Also, what the book and its essays do not adequately address is the difference between a phenomenology of text and a phenomenology of God. This problem is seen clearly in Emmanuel Housset’s essay on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (159-178) in which he focuses on the religious experience of God, and his phenomenological openness to the text is in service of that aim. He is completely honest about that, opening his essay with the following: “As a matter of methodological principle, an authentic phenomenology of religious experience should not place conditions on the manifestation of God, but should understand him only from his Word.” (159) One could take umbrage at these assumptions of God and scripture as violating phenomenology, but Housset correctly discerns that the common ground between phenomenology and scriptural study is humility: “phenomenology requires humble submission to the phenomena as they give themselves, endeavoring with the most possible rigor to avoid all theoretical or speculative bias.” (160) Like Chrétien, Housset stresses the importance of letting a passage affect you. For Housset, this affect is achieved through confrontation; but for Housset, the confrontation of one’s will is less with the text than it is with God. Housset’s position makes sense in that knowing someone, god or human, requires a confrontation that cannot be achieved through a detached viewpoint. This leads to the question of whether, in approaching any text, our confrontation is with the text or with its author. If one prejudges Christian scripture as being delivered by God, then it is easy to understand that ultimately the confrontation is with God and the aim is to be transfigured by the encounter. (161) Outside of this assumption and aim, it is less clear, and it remains an important question for the phenomenology of any text. Housset’s interesting mention of Heidegger’s idea of attunement to a text deserved a wider discussion.
That we are dealing with a specifically Christian phenomenology can be seen in Kevin Hart’s close analysis of the text Luke 15:11-32, which is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son. Hart’s phenomenological analysis of the parable is extensive and detailed but is largely a legal analysis of inheritance relations between the father and his sons. Hart is aware that the parable in Luke is not intended to be history—it is a story intended to teach a moral lesson—and the analysis of the parable needs to reflect that. Along that line of inquiry, Hart makes the good point that the narratives for both sons are unfinished because the story is a “parable of decision, one that offers eidetic possibilities that, structured according to a narrative, indicate that we should be more like the father than like either son.” (99) Hart has an agenda in his analysis, because he believes the parable shows that it has an agenda, which is to get readers to move from a worldly way of thinking to a divine one. He is honest about that agenda, acknowledging that Luke 15:11-32 has no revelatory claim on the nonbeliever, but for the believer, the Holy Spirit speaks through the text. (102) In this distinction, Hart confirms the concern I expressed earlier that a phenomenology of scripture offer insights into the text that are not restricted to those who already believe. For Hart, that means that the parable can be read strictly as a historical text by the nonbeliever, but although believers can learn a great deal from what the historians say about the text, historical reason is not sufficient in telling them what the text means. Hart argues that phenomenology makes no judgment about the rights and wrongs of belief or nonbelief and is neutral with respect to an individual’s choice to pass from nonbelief to belief in reading a scriptural text. (102-103) This seems an appropriate stance for phenomenology in general. Hart’s next step is to delineate what a Christian phenomenology could look like, using Jesus as an example. Jesus performs a phenomenological reduction in his telling of parables, Hart says, bracketing off everyday life and its worldly logic in order to lead the listener to a deeper place of divine logic. This “parable as the reduction from ‘world’ to ‘kingdom,’” strips the listener of worldly humanness and by means of this reduction tells us something of God who is pure love outside of all categories and rules. (103-105) This formula may not convince the nonbeliever, but, as Hart points out, phenomenology is neutral to each individual’s decision. I take this to be the boundary between a general phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology—that the latter can carve out this interpretive space with an additional reduction that brackets off the scientific/historical stance toward scripture. As Hart observes: “Where the historical-critical method forbids any passage from scripture to creed, phenomenology allows us to recognize that one vital element of the creed, the incarnation of God, is transcendentally supposed by Jesus’s relating of a parable of the kingdom.” (108)
Jeffrey Bloechel makes a similar distinction between a general scientific/historical phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology. His approach is to respond to Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou’s analysis of Paul’s epistles. Bloechel argues that neither Agamben nor Badiou addresses Paul as a theologian but instead as a source for conceptions of human freedom from containment within the political order. (144) Agamben and Badiou take into account only the structure, not the content, which leaves them with a reading devoid of everything Paul the author cares about and wants to communicate. In particular, Agamben and Badiou ignore Paul’s desire for there to be a community of faith united in the life of the spirit. (148) Because Agamben and Badiou conscript passages of Paul’s epistles in service of their own hermeneutical agenda, they miss the author Paul’s clear purpose in writing what he did. Bloechel argues that Paul’s central interest in his writings can emerge when we avoid the temptation to think of them first of all as political texts and attend instead to the imagery he uses of the community as a body, imagery that calls us to a conversion of our basic attitudes about and orientation to the world. (151) As nonbelievers, Bloechel says, Agamben and Badiou reduce the Christian message of Jesus to “only a single, momentous event, and not necessarily a unique one.” (156) What this shows, I think, is that regardless of whether Christianity is true, the Christian believer desevers the event of Jesus from the historical background and gives it significance in history, morality, and personal eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of Christian scripture has to be understood from within that mood of belief. Otherwise, our analysis discounts both the authors and the audience of scripture, without whom the enterprise of writing and reading have no meaning.
Jean-Yves Lacoste’s analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, the Sermon on the Mount, is a theological exegesis. Lacoste seeks to understand what Jesus’s words in the sermon show us about Jesus’s place in Judaism given his claims about Jewish law. (66) Lacoste applies the phenomenological method by bracketing off the assumption of Jesus as Messiah in reading the pericope. It is naively tempting, Lacoste says, to assume Jesus’s authoritative teaching on the Jewish law in the sermon is an assertion of messianic fulfillment, but Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah. (68) With this epoché, we can try better to understand Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and to be perfect as God is perfect. Lacoste’s Christian phenomenology informs his analysis of the “difficult logic” of the sermon. (86) His analysis comes full circle in leading him back to the conclusion that “the horizon opened by the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are perceptible only by the one who sees those commandments fulfilled in the person of the man who comes from God— the Son— and probably in him.” (84)
The remaining two essays lacked critical force. Robert Sokolowski does not focus on a particular passage but on the general importance of words. Words spoken about something introduce the thing to us, he says; they bring it to mind. (22) Writing differs from speech in that the speaker can be absent. (24) But there is a tangible speaker of the scriptures, and that is the Church. The Church as the speaker of the scriptures means the scriptures are not detached and isolated but are epitomized in the Church. (26-27) This need to understand the Church’s place as speaker of scripture is why Sokolowski rejects purely historical approaches to scripture, which incline one “to think, first, that scripture trumps tradition and, second, that history trumps scripture.” (37) Sokolowski does not give us a phenomenology, even a Christian one, but a doctrinal lesson about the importance of scripture as God’s Word. The contribution by Jean-Luc Marion is a lecture that discusses the nature of the gift. This lecture is not as lucid and insightful as Marion’s other papers on the phenomenology of the gift and givenness, and I was disappointed given his other excellent work on this subject. His essay’s connection with the book’s theme is the discussion of the story of Abraham’s confirmation (Genesis 22). Marion’s interpretation of the story is strained in his attempt to fit it into his larger philosophical concerns and is not as compelling as Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story in Fear and Trembling.
Having discussed the essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, I now turn to the two responses to those essays in the book. One is by Dale B. Martin, whose main issue with the essays is the authors’ lack of acknowledgment of interpretive agency. The reader is the interpreter of the text, and Martin takes Marion and Sokolowski to task for eclipsing the agency of the interpreter with their predetermined “this is the way things are” arguments. (191-192) I agree with Martin that most of the essays in this book hold that it is the words that do the work. This sounds good at first until you realize that it leaves out both the authors and the readers. It is a mistake if phenomenology assumes that “phenomena and words and texts simply have their meaning in themselves and just present that to us [and that] readers are passive receptors, not agents in meaning-making.” (192) Martin argues that just as objects are for us as they are interpreted by us and other human beings (emphasis his), texts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by us. Rather than putting the agency in scripture, Martin says, we need to put the agency where it belongs—with us human beings. (194) Martin praises Horner and Chrétien for giving appropriate attention to the agency of the reader as interpreter and maker of meaning and including in their phenomenology that the meaning of a text arrives only from the interpretive activities of the readers. (195-196) This is important, Martin says, because “we can have different meanings of the text, and many of them, all at the same time, interpreting differently for different ends and needs.” (196) Again, I heartily agree. If a text is designated as an object that tells us what it means, then it is not alive for readers and is more useful for the suppression of ideas than for generating and communicating them.
The other response is by Walter Brueggemann who proposes the approach to scripture of probing the thickness of the text to go beyond the obvious meaning. (180) In seeking to understand a text, he says, we are seeking to understand the culture that surrounded it and gave birth to it. To be open to this understanding, we must avoid what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” Brueggemann rebukes three types of totalism: church doctrine that occupied scripture to its own advantage and reduced biblical narrative to propositions that could become a test of membership; enlightenment rationality that has “largely explained away what is interesting, compelling, and embarrassing in the text”; and late capitalism’s reduction of narrative to medical prescriptions promising quick technical fixes to all human problems. (182) Brueggemann’s prescription to cure totalism is not to read scripture from the place of religious orthodoxy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of ecclesiastical certitude or from the place of the modernist academy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of reducing religion to a human sociopsychological projection. (186) When we move beyond the thinness of the conventional expectations of totalism, we dwell in thickness—the deeply coded cultural articulations and performances that are understood only by insiders. The reader must take up residence in the text and wait there, listening beyond what is given in the letter of the text. In thickness we can consider and accept interpretations of text that are clearly not acceptable in the surface observations of totalisms. For example, Brueggemann mentions the current interest, by both church and modern interpreters, to explain away the violence in the Bible, but the violence clearly belongs in the narrative because it is part of the cultural understanding of the culture from which the Bible emerged. We need to follow the story, not explain it away. Another example is being able to recognize messianic time in texts, meaning that the reading of the text is not settled in the present tense that is authorized by totalism but is instead always open to new possibilities. Being open to the possibilities in thickness are, Brueggemann says, a courageous response to today’s hurried productive society that does not want to dwell in any way that requires waiting because all meanings are known ahead of time. (181)
Maybe not all phenomenologies are courageous countercultural acts, as Brueggemann implies, but Phenomenologies of Scripture is going against the grain. The essays in the book are of more value to scholars of biblical interpretation than to those outside that discipline, but both biblical scholars and phenomenologists will find valuable approaches and ideas in these essays.
Wells, Adam Y., ed. 2017. Phenomenologies of Scripture. New York: Fordham University Press.
Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy can be characterised as a continuous dialogue. By discussing theories of both his contemporaries and key figures in the history of philosophy, Ricoeur has developed a philosophical thinking with an exceptionally broad scope. Hermeneutics and Phenomenology in Paul Ricoeur: Between Text and Phenomenon focuses on the two philosophical methodologies that are most decisive for Ricoeur’s thinking and concentrates especially on the interaction between these two.
The book is divided in four parts, each consisting of three to four chapters written by leading Ricoeur scholars. The first part of the book, From Existentialism and Phenomenology to Hermeneutics, provides a contextual background by examining some of the most significant sources of Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology. In the first chapter, “Ricoeur’s Early Approaches to the Ontological Question”, Marc-Antoine Vallée focuses on the existentialist influences on Ricoeur’s early approach to the ontological question. Although the understanding of the ontological question in Ricoeur is usually based on Ricoeur’s text The Conflict of Interpretations (1969), Vallée shows that before this text, Ricoeur considered the ontological question from a different point of view, in which the difference between, on the one hand, Heidegger and Sartre and, on the other, Jaspers and Marcel plays a central role.
In the second chapter, “Distanciation and Epoché: The Influence of Husserl on Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics”, Leslie MacAvoy shows that Ricoeur’s thinking is a hermeneutics that is capable of a critique of ideology. By pointing at the relation between Ricoeur’s conception of distanciation and Husserl’s conception of epoché, MacAvoy makes the differences between Gadamer’s and Ricoeur’s conception of hermeneutics visible. MacAvoy shows that Ricoeur’s philosophy can be characterised as doing hermeneutics without forgetting Husserl. Referring to the Gadamer-Habermas debate, MacAvoy argues that, because of the importance of distanciation or epoché, Ricoeur’s hermeneutics is better able to offer the possibility of a critique of tradition or ideology than Gadamer’s.
The final chapter of the first part is “Thinking the Flesh with Paul Ricoeur”, in which Richard Kearney suggests new directions for a carnal hermeneutics based on Ricoeur’s writings. Kearney shows that, while Ricoeur developed a phenomenology of the flesh in his early works, this focus disappears when Ricoeur in the 1960s starts concentrating more exclusively on a hermeneutics of the text. Starting from some reflections in Ricoeur’s final writings, which attempt to reanimate a dialogue between his initial phenomenology of the flesh and his hermeneutics of language, Kearney suggests new directions for a carnal hermeneutics in which the insights of a philosophy of embodiment and a philosophy of interpretation are brought together.
The second part of the book, Hermeneutic Phenomenology of the Self addresses the questions of the self and of our belonging to the world. In the chapter “Identity and Selfhood: Paul Ricoeur’s Contribution and Its Continuations” Claude Romano challenges Ricoeur’s idea that selfhood can be conceived as a form of identity. However, Romano does not suggest that Ricoeur’s conception of selfhood should be abandoned, but argues that we should seek a better way of understanding the relationship between selfhood and our qualitative identity.
“From a Genealogy of Selfhood: Starting from Paul Ricoeur”, the fifth chapter, explores the idea that otherness is constitutive of selfhood. Although Ricoeur distinguishes different kinds of otherness in Oneself as Another, Carmine Di Martino focuses on the otherness at work in the intersubjective relationship. By putting Ricoeur’s thought in dialogue with the works of Axel Honneth, René Spitz, and Jan Patočka, Di Martino shows how our belonging in the world is marked fundamentally by our relationships with others.
In the final chapter of the second part, “The World of the Text and the World of Life: Two Contradictory Paradigms?”, Michaël Foessel focuses on language and narrative as constitutive elements of our belonging to the world. By showing that reading is not only the interpretation of an objective meaning but also a central element of the understanding of the self, Foessel makes clear that textuality constitutes a fundamental dimension of our being in the world.
Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Tradition, Memory and History, the third part of the book, examines another aspect of alterity that constitutes the self, namely the influence of the past. In “Word, Writing, Tradition” Michael Sohn, just as Leslie MacAvoy, starts from the Gadamer-Habermas debate about tradition, but has a different approach from MacAvoy. Sohn demonstrates that the concept of tradition Ricoeur formulates within this debate goes back to Ricoeur’s earlier writings, specifically his critical engagement with French structuralism and philosophy of language. In this way, this chapter shows how Ricoeur’s philosophical ideas not only build on phenomenology and hermeneutics, but also arise to a great extent from his discussion with other schools of philosophy.
In the eighth chapter, “Involuntary Memory and Apprenticeship to Truth: Ricoeur Re-reads Proust”, Jeanne Marie Gagnebin joins Richard Kearney’s search for a carnal hermeneutics. Starting from Ricoeur’s interpretation of Proust in Time and Narrative, Gagnebin shows that Ricoeur’s reduced attention to embodiment in his later work results in an interpretation of In Search of Lost Time, in which the corporeal dimension of memory present in Proustian descriptions is not sufficiently emphasised.
The endeavour to connect embodiment to meaning is also present in the next chapter, “Memory, Space, Oblivion”, in which Luis António Umbelino shows that memory is not only a temporal experience, but also has an important spatial dimension.
A different approach to Ricoeur’s thinking about the past is offered by Pol Vandevelde in his chapter “The Enigma of the Past: Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative as a Response to Heidegger”. In this chapter, Vandevelde tests the fruitfulness of Ricoeur’s conception of narrative as the guaranty of continuity between event and historical fact, by examining some events at the end of WWII and the nature of the delay that took place between the happening of these events and their recognition decades later as historical facts.
The last part of the book is dedicated to the Challenges and Future Directions for a Hermeneutic Phenomenology. In the first chapter of this final part, Marc de Launay focuses in “The Conflict of Hermeneutics” on Ricoeur’s permanent hesitation between two different approaches to hermeneutics, hermeneutics as philosophy and hermeneutics as method. According to de Launay, Ricoeur’s intention to reconcile these two different hermeneutics cannot be maintained in the end.
In “Intersectional hermeneutics” Scott Davidson states that Ricoeur’s commitment to structuralism poses a serious challenge for his hermeneutics. To surmount this problem, Davidson develops the interesting alternative in which intersectional theory takes over the role previously played by structuralism.
The two final chapters of the book both focus on Ricoeur’s hermeneutical theory of truth. Sebastian Purcell approaches this topic in “Hermeneutics and Truth: From Alètheia to Attestation” by contrasting Ricoeur’s approach with Heidegger’s, while Todd Mei constructs a unified theory of truth from various texts of Ricoeur.
It is clear that the book consists of very different approaches to Ricoeur, and in particular to the question of the interaction between his hermeneutics and his work in the school of phenomenology, both in terms of philosophical disciplines, framework and objectives. In this way, this book offers a good sample of the broad scope of Ricoeur’s philosophy, his historical relevance and the possible future of his thinking. The collected essays all stand on their own, although interesting parallels can be drawn between some of them, resulting in an enriched view on both the influence on and interaction of different philosophical schools in Ricoeur’s philosophy and between the different philosophical disciplines Ricoeur practiced. Although this book shows well Ricoeur’s attempt to find a certain cohesion between many different philosophical approaches and assumptions, the overarching theme of the book is not everywhere equally present. Some of the texts are able to offer a very clear account of how the interrelation between hermeneutics and phenomenology is at work in the development of some of Ricoeur’s philosophical idea’s, but other texts seem to address this question barely or not at all. Therefore, the central question of the book is maybe not dealt with explicitly enough in all the different chapters. Although the individual quality of the different essays in the book is outstanding, which makes the book already worth reading, this book therefore does not quite work as whole. The different chapters rather seem to offer a puzzle the reader needs to bring together to gain insight in the complex and diverse ways in which phenomenology and hermeneutics interact in Ricoeur’s thinking. This puzzle does justice to the complexity of this central question, but a more profound elaboration of the central topic would have been beneficial.