Monday, April 21, 2008

Meaning of the text change with the changing circumstances of the reader

Zuckert on Gadamer on Strauss
from Per Caritatem by Cynthia R. Nielsen
I came across this delightful little passage in Catherine H. Zuckert’s article, “Hermeneutics in Practice: Gadamer on Ancient Philosophy.” Anyone who has done graduate work at UD (and who is not a Straussian) will appreciate this.

Gadamer made the difference between what he means by reading a text in its own terms and Leo Strauss’s insistence that we “understand an author as he understood himself” clear in TM [Truth and Method] 535 when he objected:

“[Strauss] seems to consider it possible to understand what one does not understand oneself but what someone else understands, and to understand only in the way that the other person himself understood. And he also seems to think that if a person says something, he has necessarily and fully understood ‘himself’ in the process.”

Gadamer argues, on the contrary, that

“[w]hen we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind but …into the perspective within which he has formed his views” [TM 292].

That is, we first have to try to understand the author in his own historical context. However,

“[j]ust as the events of history do not in general manifest any agreement with the subjective ideas of the person who stands and acts within history, so the sense of a text in general reaches far beyond what its author originally intended” [TM 372].

According to Gadamer, we need to engage in a dialogue with the text and that means we must ask it or its authors questions. Those questions change, however, with the changing circumstances of the reader. So do the answers, therefore, and the meaning of the text” (Zuckert, “Hermeneutics in Practice,” pp. 221-22, n. 4)

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