H.-G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (Wahrheit und Methode, 1960) has as its major theme that truth cannot be adequately explained by scientific method, and that the true meaning of language transcends the limits of methodological interpretation. Gadamer argues that hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) is not merely a method of determining truth, but that it is an activity which aims to understand the conditions which make truth possible. According to Gadamer, the role of hermeneutics in the human sciences is not the same as the role of methods of research in the natural sciences. Hermeneutics is not merely a method of interpretation, but is an investigation of the nature of understanding, which transcends the concept of method. Truth is not something which may be defined by a particular technique or procedure of inquiry, but is something which may transcend the limits of methodological reasoning. The truth of spoken or written language may be revealed when we discover the conditions for understanding its meaning.

Truth and Method is divided into three Parts: the First Part is entitled "The question of truth as it emerges in the experience of art," the Second Part is entitled "The extension of the question of truth to understanding in the human sciences," and the Third Part is entitled "The ontological shift of hermeneutics guided by language." The First Part argues that truth may be experienced through art, and that the truth of art may transcend any particular method of understanding. The Second Part describes the relation between historical study and hermeneutics, and between historical consciousness and understanding. The Third Part discusses the linguistic nature of understanding, and describes how language may be a horizon for hermeneutic ontology.

According to Gadamer, truth may be an aesthetic concept as well as a linguistic or a scientific concept. Truth may belong to a work of art as well as to a scientific theory or to a logical proposition. The truth of a work of art may be experienced by aesthetic consciousness.

To represent an experience meaningfully may be an important aim of art (e.g. the art of experience). A work of art may be inspired by an experience, and may be intended to represent an experience. The truth of a work of art may, in some cases, be determined by how accurately or correctly it represents an experience. Thus, a work of art may have its being as a form of representation.1 Gadamer argues that a work of art shares in the being of that which it represents, and that the representation of an experience by a work of art belongs to the being of the experience itself. The expressive power of a work of art is, in part, determined by the power of the experience which the work of art represents.

According to Gadamer, 'aesthetic differentiation' is an aspect of aesthetic consciousness. 'Aesthetic differentiation' is a process of abstraction whereby a work of art is considered only in terms of its aesthetic qualities. Such non-aesthetic qualities as the moral, psychological, or social context of a work of art, or its purpose or function, are excluded from consideration. Thus, aesthetic consciousness produces the concept of a 'pure' work of art. This concept is an abstraction which attempts to remove the work of art from the ontological background to which the work of art belongs.

Gadamer argues that aesthetic experience may involve an interplay between the subjectivity of the work of art and the subjectivity of the spectator. The work of art is not merely a perceptual object in the mind of the spectator but is also a subject which is capable of expressing itself. Thus, its mode of being is characterized by interplay between its functions as subject and object. Its being is changed as it becomes an experience of the spectator, and the being of the spectator is changed by experiencing the work of art.

Historical reconstruction of the world to which a work of art belongs may be a method of understanding the work’s purpose or meaning. However, Gadamer criticizes this approach to interpretation as an attempt to recover a meaning which no longer exists. Gadamer explains that our understanding of the purpose and meaning of art is always influenced by our own historical situation. To try to experience a work of art as it was originally experienced is a futile effort to place ourselves in the past and is an attempt to deny the influence of our present historical situation upon our own understanding of purpose and meaning.

Gadamer also argues that any form of understanding is, to some degree, self-understanding. When we discover the true meaning of art we also learn what we are capable of understanding.

Gadamer explains that in order to understand spoken or written language, we must have some anticipation of its meaning. However, preconceptions and prejudgments of the meaning of language and of the manner in which it is to be interpreted may actually hinder or mislead us in interpreting its meaning. Thus, in order to be able to understand the meaning of language, we may need to be able to determine which of our preconceptions make understanding possible, and which of our preconceptions hinder our understanding or lead to our misunderstanding.2

Historicism asserts that interpretation of the meaning of events is possible through a method of discovering their effective history. Gadamer criticizes historicism as a methodological approach to understanding, and argues that historicism produces many misleading prejudgments about how discourse is to be interpreted. Gadamer also criticizes Dilthey’s approach to historicism as giving insufficent clarity to the problem of how our understanding of history is influenced by the changing nature of our own historical situation.

Gadamer maintains that while historical consciousness observes the horizon of the past, hermeneutic consciousness merges the horizons of the past and present. Thus, hermeneutic consciousness has an open horizon. Hermeneutic consciousness has a horizon which is in motion, and which changes as our consciousness of the present merges with our consciousness of the past.

Gadamer also explains that while aesthetic consciousness is limited by its subjectivity, and historical consciousness is limited by its relativity, hermeneutic consciousness transcends the limits of a methodological approach to interpretation. Hermeneutic consciousness is concerned with the concept of universal history, including the history of its own understanding.

Gadamer emphasizes that our understanding of spoken or written language may change according to the historical situation in which we find ourselves. He also asserts that an understanding of the meaning of language may be an event or experience rather than an act of mind. A condition of understanding is that in order for it to occur, it must have a historical background.

According to Gadamer, the meaning of language may always be further interpreted, and to try to reduce its meaning to whatever may be determined at a particular point in time is to try to deprive language of its full meaning. The interpretation of a text does not require us to abandon all of our preconceptions of its meaning, but to be aware of them and to discover how they contribute to our understanding of the text or to our misunderstanding of the text. The hermeneutical experience also requires us to recognize that the extent of our understanding may change over a period of time, and that our interpretations of meaning are always situated within a hermeneutical tradition.

Gadamer criticizes Schleiermacher for defining hermeneutics as an art or technique of interpretation. Gadamer is also critical of Schleiermacher’s concern with the psychological interpretation of language, and rejects the argument that an important method of understanding the meaning of spoken or written language is to try to reconstruct the original intentions of the speaker or writer. However, Gadamer also seems to neglect the fact that Schleiermacher emphasizes that grammatical and psychological interpretation must be combined if we are to understand the full meaning of language.

Gadamer argues that Heidegger’s existential phenomenology extends the horizon of philosophical hermeneutics in that it reveals the projective character of understanding. In Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology, understanding may be a mode of being of There-being (Da-sein). Understanding may disclose the fore-structure of Da-sein, which may project itself as existential possibility. Gadamer credits Heidegger for recognizing that all understanding may involve some anticipation of meaning. The task of hermeneutics may not be to reject all preconceptions of meaning, but to recognize that some of these preconceptions may be conditions of understanding.

According to Gadamer, language is a medium of hermeneutic experience and is a vehicle of our understanding of the world. The universal aspect of hermeneutics as a realm of philosophical inquiry is that language is the being of everything which can be understood.3 Hermeneutics is not merely a method of interpretation, but is an ontological relationship between an interpreter and a language which is to be interpreted.


1Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 118.
2Ibid., p. 263.
3Ibid., p. 432.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975.

Copywright© Alex Scott 2003

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