Sunday, July 19, 2009

Always mediated by our own cultural biases as well as the metaphors and languages

Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Contributions to Philosophy from Per Caritatem by Cynthia R. Nielsen

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in Charles Taylor’s work. In an essay entitled, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,”[1] Taylor discusses some of the contributions Gadamer has made to philosophy by providing us an alternative way of understanding texts and events. That is, rather than patten hermeneutics or even our knowledge of the other on the “scientific” model of grasping on object, we approach the text or other as a dialogue partner who can potentially change us as we expand our horizons to understand it or him/her. [...]

In other words, whatever universal human nature we might arrive at is always mediated by our own cultural biases as well as the metaphors and languages we agree upon to express this human nature. For example, consider the way in which race was understood in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certain races were considered inherently inferior to others and even sub-human, whereas the superior race always happened to be the white, European race (which, of course, happened to be the race of most of the advocates of the idea-Kant, Hegel, etc.). Most today would have no reservations saying that surely cultural biases and self-understanding played a significant role in the conclusions of these philosophers on race.

As Taylor notes, here we come to a huge “watershed in our intellectual world.” That is, on the one side are those who want to secure an account of human nature “below the level of culture,” such that any significant cultural variation can be explicated by means of this more fundamental account (129). Examples of this view include certain expressions of sociobiology and accounts of human motivation. These types of accounts relegate cultural variation to a mere epiphenomenal status. On the other side are those who find the first account unsatisfying because it doesn’t take serious enough the function, status and influence of cultural difference. Gadamer, of course, falls within the second group and rejects the model of science as the model for understanding human life.

As we have said, Gadamer chooses a different model, the model of interpersonal understanding, which exhibits three central features: it is bilateral, party-dependent, and involves revising-goals. So how does he answer some of the major objections to his alternative model? For example, how does party-dependence and goal-revising not turn into relativism?

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