Topics and Theses


»Hermeneutics« is a term that covers many different levels of reflection, as is frequently the case with Greek words that have become part of the terminology in our scholarly disciplines. »Hermeneutics« refers, first of all, to a practice, an art, that requires a special skill. This points to a further Greek word, namely techne. Hermeneutics is the practical art, that is, a techne, involved in such things as preaching, interpreting other languages, explaining and explicating texts, and, as the basis of all of these, the art of understanding, an art particularly required any time the meaning of something is not clear and unambiguous.

Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics (1968), in: The Gadamer Reader, trans. Richard E. Palmer (Evanston 2007), 44

Whoever wishes to understand something does not need to approve of it. But I think that hermeneutic experience teaches us that critical exertion is only ever effective in a limited scope. Whatever one seeks to understand also always speaks for itself. The whole richness of the hermeneutic universe, which is open to everything that can be understood, rests on this. By bringing everything into play, the thing to be understood forces those seeking to understand it also to hold nothing back. This amounts to growth in reflection that results exclusively from the practice of interpretation.

Replik zu Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik (1971), in: GW 2, 273, trans. Charles Ducey

A theory of the praxis of understanding is obviously theory and not practice, but a theory of praxis is still not some kind of »technique,« nor is it an effort to make societal practice more scientific. Rather, hermeneutics offers a philosophical reflection on the limits of all scientific and technical control of nature and society. These limits are truths that need to be defended against the modern concept of science, and defending these truths is one of the most important tasks of a philosophical hermeneutics.

Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics (1968), in: The Gadamer Reader, trans. Richard E. Palmer (Evanston 2007), 71

We live in our received traditions, and these are not just a part of our experience of the world, not a cultural deposit that consists only of texts and documents and conveys a linguistically composed and historically documented meaning. Rather, it is the world itself that is experienced communicatively and opens up as an endless task for us as it is given over to us (traditur). The world is never seen as it was on the first day but as a world that is always already handed down to us. At all those times when something is experienced or loses its unfamiliarity, when something is illuminated or made one’s own, the hermeneutic process has been carried out in word and collective consciousness.

Selbstdarstellung Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975), in: GW 2, 498, trans. Charles Ducey


Fundamentally, the experience of historical tradition reaches far beyond those aspects of it that can be objectively investigated. It is true or untrue not only in the sense concerning which historical criticism decides, but always mediates truth in which one must try to share.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), xxii

For this reason, I have suggested that we supplement the ideal of objective knowledge, which dominates our concepts of knowledge, scholarship, and truth, with the ideal of participation. Participation in the essential claims of human experience, as developed in artistic, religious and historical traditions not just of our culture but of all cultures—this possible participation is the actual criterion for the richness or the poverty of research outcomes in the humanities.

Hermeneutik, Ästhetik, praktische Philosophie. Hans-Georg Gadamer im Gespräch (1993), 14f., Trans. Charles Ducey

Each of us must grant validity to the ideal of the verifiability of all knowledge within the bounds of the possible. But we must admit that this ideal is seldom achieved and that those researchers who seek most precisely to reach this ideal do not say the truly important things in most cases. So, it is that the humanities offer something that is unthinkable in the natural sciences; namely, that the researcher can occasionally learn more from the book of a dilettante than from the books of other researchers. This is limited to exceptional cases, of course. But that something like this can occur shows that there exists a relation between the knowledge of truth and the sayable which cannot be measured by the verifiability of claims. We know this so well in the humanities that we harbor a certain founded distrust toward a certain kind of scholarly work that show off their conformity to a certain method all too clearly (especially in endnotes). Is something really new asked in these cases? Or is the method of knowing only observed in its external forms, such that the impression of scholarly work results? We must admit, that the greatest and most fruitful achievements of the humanities run far ahead the ideal of verifiability. But this becomes philosophically meaningful.

Was ist Wahrheit? (1957), in: GW 2, 50, trans. Charles Ducey

Much as how tolerance must rest on an inner strength, so must it be with the scholarly objectivity required in the humanities. Here, too, one need not eliminate one’s perspective in favor or general validity but must involve oneself for the sake of others’ knowledge and recognition. The now truly global field of human coexistence on this planet is the actual task of humankind’s future. I would not dare say that the humanities have their task here. I would say that it is the other way around, that the humanities are constantly given their new tasks by the growing interconnectivity of human pluralism. These are tasks of historical research, of linguistic history, of literary history, of religious history, which immediately work themselves into references to reality.

Die Zukunft der europäischen Geisteswissenschaften (1983), in: Hermeneutische Entwürfe, 127, trans. Charles Ducey


Philosophy stands in a fundamentally different relation to its history as other sciences do. To be sure, no revival of the a priori construction of history can come into question today, as was allowed to Hegel, who saw the core of world history in the history of philosophy. But another thought from Hegel remains true: that it is fitting for the essence of the Spirit that its unfolding occurs in time. Therefore, the kind of thinking that aims at thinking the Spirit has to be directed to its own history.

Die Philosophie und ihre Geschichte (1998), in: Hermeneutische Entwürfe, 69, trans. Charles Ducey

It is the task of philosophy to find what is shared also among what is different. »To learn to see synoptically« is, according to Plato, the task of the philosophical dialectician.

Die Aktualität des Schönen (1974), in: GW 8, 103, trans. Charles Ducey

The beginning of what end is the beginning of occidental philosophy actually? It may have sounded apparent in the age of neo-Kantianism when the question was understood as asking about the beginning of science and the scientific philosophy. But now the scientific character of philosophy has become questionable as horizons have forcefully opened up, as our thinking began to perceive other cultures. They present us with an image in which religious depth and theoretical zeal appear without relying on science in the modern sense of the word. In this way, we must account for entirely different answers.

Die Philosophie und ihre Geschichte (1998), in: Hermeneutische Entwürfe, 76, trans. Charles Ducey

To be historical means that knowledge of oneself can never by complete.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), 301

The paragon of science that marks our age should also protect us from the temptation to yield to hasty constructions out of a need for uniformity while philosophizing. Just as our whole experience of the world constitutes a never-ending process of becoming homely—to use Hegel’s notion—, so, too, is the need for philosophically justification an unending process. This process occurs not only in the conversation that each thinking person carries out with oneself, but also the conversation in which we are all encompassed and never cease being encompassed by—whether or not one declares philosophy to be dead.

Über das Philosophische in den Wissenschaften und die Wissenschaftlichkeit der Philosophie (1975), in: Vernunft im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft, 31, trans. Charles Ducey


The concepts of philosophy receive the determination of their meaning not through an arbitrary choice of designator, but through their own historical origin and genesis of meaning, within which philosophical thinking evolves.

Die Begriffsgeschichte und die Sprache der Philosophie (1971), in: GW 4, 79, trans. Charles Ducey

Conceptual history seems to me to be a prerequisite for critical and responsible philosophizing in our time, and it is only via the history of words that research in conceptual history can move forward.

Philosophische Lehrjahre (1977), 183, trans. Charles Ducey

[I]f we are not to swept along by language, but to strive for a reasoned historical self-understanding, we must face a whole host of questions about verbal and conceptual history. […] Concepts such as »art,« »history,« »the creative,« »worldview,« »experience,« »genius,« »external world,« »interiority,« »expression,« »style,« »symbol,« which we take to self-evident, contain a wealth of history.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), 9

Teleological nomenclatures were unavoidable in the first attempts at order and classification in the history of philosophy, such as monism and dualism, positivism and apriorism, naturalism and mentalism and so on down the line. But wherever they remain uncritically in use, historical reflection is impaired by dogmatic prejudices. This is especially true for the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to the extent that it hasn’t been forced into higher reflection through the newer philosophy of language. The task of conceptual history remains in any case to reverse the process of neutralization that has arisen in the use of these schematized concepts, thereby bringing to life their original critical and polemical function and the historical verification associated with it. This was instructive for a whole generation under the revolutionary term »destruction« introduced by Heidegger to later phenomenology. Destruction, of course, has nothing to do with destroying things but with unpacking and returning to the truly telling origins of the concept words

Die Philosophie und ihre Geschichte (1998), in: Hermeneutische Entwürfe, 93, trans. Charles Ducey


[A]rt is knowledge and experiencing an artwork means sharing in that knowledge.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), 84

The game of art is […] a mirror that reappears to us throughout the centuries, in which we recognize ourselves as we are, as we could be and what we are all about—often unexpectedly and strangely.

Das Spiel der Kunst (1977), in: GW 8, 92, Trans. Charles Ducey

It will be true that older art will become less accessible to younger generations than the art that emerges out of the production of our own industrial world, because they lack much historical and scholarly knowledge. On the other hand, it may be difficult for older generations to look away from the great wealth of meaning and fullness of the great artworks of past times, if one wishes to be open to the creation of today. We all have our limits that we cannot get beyond. At times, someone may wish to show us something that we cannot yet see. Prejudices of taste, of education, also lack of education, effects of habit and expectation could get in the way—and then we experience once more the reality of what art is, when something is veiled in the aura of uniqueness that seizes us, that places limits on us and brings us wonder.

Der Kunstbegriff im Wandel (1995), in: Hermeneutische Entwürfe, 159f., Trans. Charles Ducey

Poetic constructs [Gebilde] are ›constructs‹ in a novel sense of the word; they are eminently ›texts.‹ Language emerges here in its full autonomy. It stands for itself and achieves a standing for itself, while words alone are otherwise overtaken by the intentional direction of speech that leaves them behind.

Selbstdarstellung Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975), in: GW 2, 508, Trans. Charels Ducey

The task is to build up and establish what a Gebilde is; to construe something that is not »constructed«—and that means that all efforts at construction are withdrawn. While it is true that for reading in general, the unity of understanding and reading can only be accomplished in a reading that understands and at that moment leaves behind the linguistic appearance of the text; for in the case of literary texts something else is there that constantly makes present the changing relationships of sound and meaning. The temporal structure of this movement [die Zeitstruktur der Bewegtheit] is something I call »whiling« [Verweilen, tarrying, lingering], a lingering that occupies this presentness and into which all mediatory discourse of interpretation must enter.

Text and Interpretation (1983), in: The Gadamer Reader, trans. Richard E. Palmer (Evanston 2007), 189


Reason always consists in not blindly insisting on what one holds true, but engaging critically with it. This is still what enlightenment does, but not in the dogmatic form of a new absolute rationality that always knows better—reason also needs to be grasped with respect to itself and its own contingency in a process of constant self-enlightenment.

The Power of Reason (1968), in Praise of Theory, trans. Christopher Dawson, 48-49

A ›correct‹ image of humanity is an image that has been freed of dogma, above all through natural science, behavioral science, ethnology, and the diversity of historical experience. It will abstain from the clear, normative profile upon which the scientific streamlining of practice wishes to rely, such as in the form of social engineering. But it is a standard of critical thought that frees human action from hasty evaluations and devaluations and helps to remind civilization of its goal, which threatens to be less and less a path to advancing humanity when left to its own devices. In this way, and only in this way, scientific knowledge about humanity serves human knowledge and practice along with it.

Theorie, Technik, Praxis (1972), in: GW 4, 266, trns. Charles Ducey

In the practical use of rules in all areas, one will find that the more one ›masters‹ one’s abilities the more freedom one has toward these abilities, and this is part of all forms of ›practice.‹ Whoever ›masters‹ his art does need to prove his superiority to himself or others. That is an old piece of Platonic wisdom, that true ability also allows distancing oneself from it, so that the master runner can also run ›slowly,‹ the knower can lie the most assuredly etc. What Plato meant by this implicitly is that this freedom from one’s own ability frees one to have a point of view of one’s own ›practice‹ for the first time, which goes beyond one’s competencies—what Plato calls ›the Good‹ determines our practical and political decisions.

Theorie, Technik, Praxis (1972), in: GW 4, 261, trans. Charles Ducey

The Greeks already knew that the Good is a multicolored thing. The conflict over it is so deeply rooted that the limitation of reason by contingency is practically omnipresent—a contingency that one runs up against and cannot evade through thinking or deduction.

Vernunft und praktische Philosophie (1986), in: GW 10, 259, trans. Charles Ducey

Can there be a science of the Good? […] In truth we must constantly choose for ourselves, and the question remains whether we really succeed in finding the Good or just something better. In this way, the famed knowledge that set Socrates apart is the knowledge that one does not know. This in a certain sense is nothing special, or better: not knowing is nothing special. To admit this, however, is not so easy

Die Grenzen des Experten (1989), in: Das Erbe Europas, 149, trans. Charles Ducey


Only in conversation is language wholly what it can be

Behandlung und Gespräch (1989), in: Die Verborgenheit der Gesundheit, 161, trans. Charles Ducey

Being able to speak means being able to cross over one’s own barriers. In this way, the universal possibility of human conversation, of speaking with each other and against each other, implies a reference to reason as the communal human medium through which insight occurs.

Die Stellung der Philosophie in der heutigen Gesellschaft (1967), in: GW 10, 314, Trans. Charles Ducey

If one sees nothing else in speaking other than the verbalization of thoughts that one has spoken for oneself in silence, then one has fundamentally mistaken what is truly mysterious in the essence of language.

Zur Phänomenologie von Ritual und Sprache (1992), in: GW 8, 432, Trans. Charles Ducey

Every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language. Something is placed in the center, as the Greeks say, which the partners in dialogue both share, and concerning which they can exchange ideas with one another. Hence reaching an understanding on the subject matter of a conversation necessarily means that a common language must be worked out in the conversation. This is not an external matter of simply adjusting our tools; nor is it even right to say that the partners adapt themselves to one another but, rather, in a successful conversation they both come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community. To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), 371

The ongoing dialogue permits no final conclusion. It would be a poor hermeuticist who thought he could have, or had to have, the last word.

Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London 1975), 581